Uncornered Market » Food http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Wed, 27 Aug 2014 19:01:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Ethiopian Food (An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine)http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopian-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ethiopian-food/#comments Fri, 27 Jun 2014 15:45:27 +0000 http://uncorneredmarket.com/?p=18839 By Daniel Noll

When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds […]

The post Ethiopian Food (An Overview of Ethiopian Cuisine) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Daniel Noll

Maheberawi (Mixed Meat Platter) at Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. Expectations exceeded.

When we headed to Ethiopia recently, I went packing with high expectations of the food. Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Ethiopian food fresh out of university. In Washington, D.C., just new to world cuisine, I clearly recall my first pull of a round stretchy pancake-like injera bread, beautifully colored mounds of what looked to me like curries, and a massive circular tin plate from which we all grabbed and chowed down. The flavors and communal style of eating was cool and unusual, like nothing I had experienced before. I wanted to learn more.

After praising the food in Ethiopia upon our recent return – yes, it’s as good on the home turf as it is abroad — I was surprised by how little awareness seemed to exist not only of Ethiopian dishes but also of the distinct existence of the cuisine itself, even among some friends I consider well-traveled and food aware.

This isn’t terribly surprising. After all, how often do you hear someone raving about and posting photos of cuisine from sub-Saharan Africa?

Ethiopia is the exception. With its rich, spicy stews and diversity of flavors, Ethiopian food surely qualifies as one the world’s great stand-alone cuisines.

Considering the country’s history and geography, particularly in situ, it makes sense. The cuisine follows the culture, formed and informed by millennia of trade and exchange with the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean. Amidst this storm of positive culinary influence, acquired spices blend with Ethiopia’s indigenous ingredients.

And, poof! You get Ethiopian food, a unique table befitting the context.

Here’s what we discovered about Ethiopian food during our time in country: from the basic ingredients and spices that make the cuisine so unique to some of our favorite Ethiopian dishes.

Let’s dig in!

Ethiopian Food: The Fundamentals and Basics

Injera

Ethiopian food without injera might be considered heresy by Ethiopians. This spongy pancake-like flatbread made from fermented tef (a gluten-free grain indigenous to Ethiopia) is fundamental to every Ethiopian meal.

Making Injera (Ethiopian Flatbread) in Village near Lalibela, Ethiopia
Making injera the traditional way as a local village prepares for a 500-person wedding.

Injera features a slightly sour flavor that comes from the fermentation of its primary ingredient, a grain called tef. Although we enjoy eating injera, for some it may be an unusual, if not acquired, taste. The tangy flavor, however, seems well-designed to complement the flavors found in Ethiopian stews.

After eating injera across Ethiopia, we also learned that not all injera is created equal. Typically, the lighter the color the higher the quality of the tef grain therein, meaning a smoother, subtler tang. Some injera is deliberately dark, almost to the point of brownish purple.

An Ethiopian Welcome, Injera and Berbere - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Injera with a simple berbere sauce offered as a sign of welcome to a village near Lalibela.

In traditional Ethiopian meals you’ll often find circles of injera rolled out like a natural plate, atop which are arranged a smattering of spicy stews, cooked vegetables and salads. Although the presentation may appear similar to that of an Indian thali, the flavors and style is uniquely Ethiopian. Restaurants will usually bring out baskets full of additional napkin-rolled injera rounds. One thing is almost certain in Ethiopia – you’ll never ever have to worry about running out of injera during a meal!

Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Platter) at Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar, Ethiopia
Injera, the edible base of a typical Ethiopian mixed vegetarian plate. No fork and knife needed.

Injera is meant to be eaten with your hands. Tear off a small bit with your right hand (as in many countries, eating with one’s left hand is a no-no in Ethiopia) and scoop bits of the stews and various dishes into it, forming a bite sized food parcel and gingerly tuck it into your mouth. Don’t feel embarrassed if you get some of the stew or sauce on your fingers in the process – it’s natural and is part of the fun. Tempted though you may be to lick your fingers, know that Ethiopians don’t care for that practice, either.

Injera tip to beat all injera tips: the best bits of injera are the spice- and sauce-infused patches underneath the piles of stew on the tray!

It’s unlikely you’ll ever emerge hungry from a meal with lots of injera, as it fills the stomach for hours. After a big lunch in Ethiopia, it’s rare that we ate a full dinner later in the day, if we ate at all.

Berbere

The signature red spice mound that delivers magic to most Ethiopian stews, berbere is composed of ground semi-spicy chili peppers (which themselves are called berbere to further confuse) mixed with upwards of 20 individual herbs, spices and ingredients including garlic, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fenugreek.

Ethiopian Cuisine, Berbere and Shiro Powder - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Crucial to the Ethiopian kitchen: berbere on the left, chickpea flour for shiro on the right.

Mitmita

Mitmita is another core spice blend composed of chili peppers (smaller and hotter than berbere), cardamom seed, cloves and salt. While mitmita is often turned in meat dishes to add an extra kick during the cooking process, it’s also used as a condiment to lend some additional heat to the meal on one’s plate.

Mitmita Chili Peppers - Merkato, Addis Ababa
Birdseye chili peppers, core to mitmita. We couldn’t resist buying a bag of mitmita in Addis Ababa.

Niter Kibbeh

Niter kibbeh, a spiced clarified butter similar to Indian ghee, is one of Ethiopia’s secret, magic ingredients that we all ought to know more about. It’s also pure culinary fusion inspiration.

Niter kibbeh is made by cooking butter together with a raft of ingredients including onions, garlic and ginger and spices like fenugreek, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. After a long simmer, the solids are then strained away from the concoction leaving a delicious clarified butter that adds both richness and distinction to most Ethiopian dishes, especially tibs (stir-fried meat), wats (stews), and gored gored (raw beef).

Getting Started with Ethiopian Food: Mixed Plates

Ethiopian dining is a social event, a shared experience that is not only delicious but also a shocking amount of fun.

For the first time visitor to the country (or an Ethiopian restaurant), the best place to begin with Ethiopian food is to order a mixed plate – meat, vegetarian, or both — so that you can sample a variety of stews (wats) and dishes at one sitting. Although the mounds delivered to your table may individually appear small, collectively the portions are often staggeringly large. We recommend sharing a plate with others so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

Although some dishes may appear regularly in mixed plates, the ones that comprise yours will likely be based on whatever happens to be cooked fresh that day. Always a tasty surprise!

Ethiopian Eating = Sociable Eating: When I consider the Ethiopian style of eating, the word that comes to mind is “thali”, the Indian/South Asian term for a meal composed of samples of various dishes.

After our first big meal in the Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar, I aimed to find out the Ethiopian equivalent of this term. So I took a photo of our meal to the bartender at the hotel where we were staying and asked him. After a few false starts, including a round of identifying each of the dishes in the image, the man explained that this was “soshabie” style.

“Can you write it down?” I asked. He did, in English and Amharic script.
Ethiopia Sociable Food
After receiving the piece of paper, I went to the internet to confirm this “soshabie” style of eating. Nothing. I posted it to Facebook anyway, proud that I’d unearthed a new term for Ethiopian eating that no other writer had previously discovered.

I later took the piece of paper to our guide, Fekadu. After puzzling over it, he began laughing. “It’s sociable food. The only reason I know this is that he spelled sociable phonetically using Amharic letters.”

So while there’s no special term like “thali” to describe the Ethiopian style of eating where everyone gathers around a big platter to share, there’s always a story. And perhaps a cultural lesson, too.

Maheberawi (Meat Mixed Plate)

Ethiopian meat-based mixed plates usually combine several stews like key wat (beef stew), tibs (lamb, beef or goat cubes cooked with nitter kibeh and herbs like rosemary), and kitfo (raw ground beef). We highly recommend ordering one of these and sharing it with at least two to three people.

Maheberawi (Meat Mixed Plate) - Ethiopian Food at Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar
Our Ethiopian Easter meat feast: a maherberawi featuring kitfo, key wat, and tibs.

Recommended Restaurants: Among the best maheberawi we ate in Ethiopia: Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar and Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa.

Yetsom Beyaynetu (Vegetarian Mixed Plate)

Also known as a fasting platter, yetsom beyaynetu is a mixed vegetarian plate that usually includes several types of lentil and split pea stews (e.g., misir wat, alecha kik or mesir kik) with kale (gomen) and a spicy tomato stew (sils). Talk about a vegetarian – if not a vegan — dream.

Ethiopian Fasting Platter (Yetsom Beyaynetu) - Gondar, Ethiopia
A delicious yetsom beyaynetu with an array of lentil stews and mixed vegetables.

Yetsom Beyaynetu is usually available in restaurants in Ethiopia on Wednesday and Friday when practicing Orthodox Ethiopians (the majority of the population) forego meat and dairy products. These dishes are also readily available during the fasting periods before Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Bigger restaurants that are more accustomed to foreigners may offer a vegetarian fasting plate every day, while smaller local restaurants may not.

Recommended Restaurant: The best yetsom beyaynetu we ate in Ethiopia was at Four Sisters Restaurant in Gondar. The staff may encourage the buffet as all the vegetarian dishes are there, but if you order the fasting plate straight from the menu it is cheaper and prettier, and still quite plentiful. Seven Olives Restaurant in Lalibela also serves up a decent yetsom beyaynetu.

A Note for Vegetarians and Vegans Traveling in Ethiopia

Consider traveling in Ethiopia just prior to Orthodox Easter and Orthodox Christmas, as you will be virtually guaranteed to find vegetarian food at this time. During these periods, more strict Ethiopians observe a fast and forgo meat and dairy products for upwards of 50 days. Fasting plates served during these periods are terrifically delicious, and may not always be available in restaurants during non-fasting periods — particularly when locals are ravenous for meat, just after the conclusion of the fast.

Ethiopian Meat Dishes

Doro Wat (Chicken Stew)

This rich chicken stew is one of Ethiopia’s most famous dishes. We were told that when an Ethiopian girl wants to marry, she has to make doro wat for her fiancé’s family as a demonstration of her culinary proficiency and thus worthiness to be chosen as a wife. While this traditional cooking exam may still hold in rural areas, it is quickly dying out in Ethiopian cities.

Doro wat takes forever to make, which is why it is often only served during holidays and on special occasions. It involves slow cooking red onions, berbere and chicken parts for hours, until just the right consistency and blend of flavors has been achieved.

Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew) and Injera - Gondar, Ethiopia
Homemade doro wat on a piece of injera. Rich and delicious.

We were fortunate to enjoy a home-cooked version of doro wat at our guide’s friend’s girlfriend’s house. Though the connection was tenuous and the meal difficult to photograph, the taste was wonderful.

Doro wat is difficult to find at restaurants due to the amount of time it takes to prepare, but it is worth making the extra effort to seek it out. Ask your guide, other locals and hotel or restaurant staff well in advance of your meal and they may be able to point you in the direction of where to find it. If it’s not on a restaurant’s standard menu, ask if you can pre-order it for that night or for the following day.

Minchet (Spicy Ground Beef Stew)

Quite often our favorite meat dish, minchet is often placed at the center of a maheberawi (mixed meat plate). This ground meat stew is made from simmered red onions blended with ground beef and berbere. It’s often served topped with a boiled egg or two. Apparently you can ask for a low-spice version, too.

Key Wat (Spicy Beef Stew)

Similar to minchet, but made with meat chunks instead of minced meat. Also served with a boiled egg on top, in the middle of a mixed plate.

Tibs (Stir-Fried Meat)

Cubes of meat (beef, lamb or goat) stir-fried with onions, peppers and other vegetables in niter kibbeh. Quite often, twigs of rosemary or other herbs are added to it. Tibs can also be served spicy with some berbere thrown in. A simple and unassuming dish that’s got more flavor than you would imagine.

Cooking Ethiopian Food, Tibs (Beef with Rosemary) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Cooking lesson: tibs with fresh rosemary at Lalibela Lodge.

Gomen Be Sega (Meat with Vegetables)

Beef or lamb simmered in copious amounts of niter kibbeh with collard greens and other vegetables like carrots, cabbage and onions. On the occasions we tried gomen be sega, the meat was tough but the vegetables were absolute perfection thanks to the blended flavor of the meat and spiced clarified butter.

Gomen Besega (Vegetables with Beef) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
A hearty serving of gomen be sega.

Recommended Restaurants: We found the best versions of gomen be sega at 7 Olives Restaurant in Lalibela and Kategna Restaurant in Addis Ababa.

Kitfo

Kifto, raw lean ground beef blended with berbere, is another signature dish of Ethiopia. Think of it as the Ethiopian version of the French raw beef steak tartare. As such, visitors will earn bonus points from locals for eating this. Before you judge kitfo and yell “OMG, raw meat in Ethiopia!”, we suggest you give it try. You may look at eating raw meat – and doing so in Ethiopia — in a whole new light.

Recommended Restaurant: The best kitfo we ate: Lake Shore Restaurant in Bahir Dar. It also helped that this was Easter day so the meat was incredibly fresh and rolling out of the kitchen as if it were going out of style.

Gored Gored

Raw meat fine dining at its best. Gored gored features raw cubes of the highest quality beef warmed slightly in spiced Ethiopian butter (niter kibbeh) and turned with berbere spice. Even if you try kitfo and decide that raw meat is not for you, we recommend that you still give gored gored a try. When done well, it’s a spectacularly flavored and textured dish.

Restaurant recommendation: Order gored gored at one of the Kategna Restaurant locations in Addis Ababa. The meat is high quality, the flavor incredibly delicious.

Ethiopian Vegetarian Dishes

Shiro (Chickpea Stew)

Both a fast food and a fasting food, shiro is a vegetarian stew made from chickpea flour mixed with berbere and other spices. It can be served either thick (tagamino) or thin (feses). Although shiro often serves as the center of a yetsom beyaynetu fasting plate, you’ll also find it served on its own. For vegetarians, this is reliable and widely available.

Shiro (Chickpea Flour Stew), Ethiopian Food - Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
A bowl of shiro served with a side of injera.

Mesir Wat (Red Lentil Stew) and Kik Wat (Split Pea Stew)

A rich and spicy red lentil stew, mesir wat was among our favorite staples on a fasting plate. Made with sautéed onions, berbere, cardamom and other spices, misir wat is the ultimate vegetarian comfort food.

Mesir Wat (Spicy Lentil Stew) - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Learning to cook mesir wat at an impromptu cooking class at Lalibela Lodge.

A similarly styled stew made with split peas is called kik wat.

Kik Alicha (Split Pea Stew)

A non-spicy split pea stew made with turmeric, kik alicha helps balance out all the other flavors and spice on an Ethiopian plate. Although kik alicha does not pack a lot of heat, it still features a lot of flavor.

Gomen (Kale or Collard Greens)

Gomen is a simple, flavorful dish made from kale (or collard greens), onions, niter kibbeh and other spices sauteed and simmered together. Gomen made a regular appearance on vegetarian platters and is a welcome addition amongst all those lentils and beans.

Sils (Tomato Stew)

A savory tomato stew made from blended roasted onions, tomatoes, and berbere, sils provides a one-part tart and one-part sweet balance to the greens and beans on a vegetarian platter.

If you tire of injera and traditional food and order pasta in Ethiopia, it’s likely that sils will form the base of your pasta’s red sauce. A unique and roasted twist on Italian pasta sauce.

Ethiopian Snacks and Breakfast

Kolo (Roasted Barley)

Kolo became our go-to beer snack at the end of the day. It’s often served mixed with peanuts and other seeds or nuts. Hearty and healthy, it pairs nicely with a St. George beer at the end of a long day.

Fir-Fir (or Fit-Fit)

Made of sliced pieces of injera turned in berbere sauce or leftover wat, fir-fir is a traditional and hearty (some may say heavy) way to start your day.

Other Ethiopian Spices and Condiments

If you enjoy heat like we do and you’d like to further spice your Ethiopian meal, here are a couple of additional spice condiment items to consider requesting at an Ethiopian restaurant. Not only will your food be spicier, but you’ll also likely impress or puzzle your hosts with the request.

Awazi

A typical and traditional dark red spice sauce made of berbere blended with water or oil. In traditional Ethiopian restaurants unaccustomed to tourists, it’s typical for this to be served automatically with your meal. In Ethiopian restaurants that cater more to tourists, you may have to ask for it.

Da’ta

A thick, pulverized chili topping. We came across a red chili variety and a green variety that tasted like a blend of Ethiopian low-heat green chilis and green herbs.

Da’ta is especially good if you’d like to spice up western food (e.g., pasta) when you’re taking a break from traditional Ethiopian fare.

Ethiopian Coffee

Coffee in Ethiopia, the land where it was first discovered, is a treat not only because the quality of the coffee is very high, but also because its preparation is careful and elaborate. Regardless of whether you take your coffee in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony or from an Italian espresso machine (a legacy of the short Italian occupation of Ethiopia during World War II), you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Roasting Coffee Beans & Frankincense - Gondar, Ethiopia
Invited to enjoy an Ethiopian coffee ceremony inside a home in Gondar.

A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony will likely take at least twenty minutes from start to finish for the first cup of coffee, but it is worth the wait. It begins with your host, always a woman, roasting raw green coffee beans in a pan over a small charcoal oven. When the beans have finished roasting, your host will bring the pan to each person present so that he may enjoy the aroma. At the same time, she’ll light some frankincense to purify and clear the air. Popcorn is usually served as a snack.

The boiled water and freshly ground coffee beans are mixed together in a jebena, a traditional coffee pot, and a magic process — one that only the host knows to ensure a perfect cup of strong coffee — ensues. The coffee is then poured gracefully into small, handleless cups.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, Pouring Coffee - Aksum, Ethiopia
Our host pours freshly brewed coffee from a jebena.

Traditionally, a full coffee ceremony involves three rounds of coffee that proceed from strong (abol) to medium (tona) to weak (baraka), with the final round considered as bestowing a blessing on the coffee drinker.

Coffee ceremonies serve an important social function beyond the actual coffee consumed. Our guide told us that women in the community used to gather each afternoon for a coffee ceremony that takes several hours to finish, thereby ensuring ample time to discuss all news and family issues. Coffee meetings such as these rotate from house to house in a community group, so as to give each of the hosts a break.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony - Lalibela, Ethiopia
Enjoying a cup of coffee in a village outside of Lalibela.

Ethiopian Coffee Recommendation: If you are looking for a truly outstanding espresso or macchiato, pay a visit to Tomoca in Addis Ababa. This unassuming coffee roaster and café features a decor of a bygone era and serves up an incredibly rich brew at the hands of a couple masterful baristas. It’s also a good place to purchase whole bean or ground Ethiopian coffee to take home as gifts.

Other Ethiopian Drinks

Tej (Honey Wine or Mead)

An Ethiopian local specialty, tej is a honey wine featuring varying degrees of sweetness. The first batch we tried was almost like a dessert wine (our guide called it “the children’s version”). We took our second taste of a cloudy, earthy and higher alcohol tej in a tej betoch (honey wine house) and nightclub in Lalibela.

Ethiopian Honey Wine (Tej) - Gondar, Ethiopia
Tej served in a traditional bottle (berele).

Tej is usually served in a rounded vase-like or beaker-like glass container called a berele. Although it’s typical to order one berele per person, drinker beware if you manage to finish it all.

Tella

A traditional Ethiopian beer made from teff, barley, maize or other grains blended with a green herb called gesho. Tella is usually brewed at home. You’ll often find it in grimy, nondescript plastic bottles lurking in the doorways of local homes. Alcohol concentrations vary widely.

Araki

During one of our monster lunch Ethiopian food gorging sessions, I asked Fekadu, our guide: “What do Ethiopians do when they get an upset stomach?”

His response without skipping a beat: “We take a shot of araki.”

Araki is essentially the Ethiopian version of grappa (firewater or moonshine, if you like). If the name sounds like Greek raki or Balkan rakia, that’s because it’s likely descended from or related to the Mediterranean distilled spirits of a similar name. It’s made from gesho leaves and features an alcohol level of around 45%. No wonder it is good for an upset stomach. It likely kills anything in its path, bacteria included.

Ethiopian Beer

Talk to anyone who likes a beer about their experience in Ethiopia and they might wax long about St. George beer. It’s not an incredible beer — and there are certainly other, more complex beers for those who search — but it is tasty enough, particularly after a long day of rock-hewn church hopping.

Be sure to check out the St. George beer label in detail. It’s one of the more colorful and notable beer labels in this part of the world.

Other Ethiopian beers in order of our preference include Dashen, Bedele, Castel, Harar and Meta.

Ethiopian Wine

Ethiopia makes wine? Turns out that it does. We had no idea, either.

Although some Ethiopian wines are unimpressive — sweet and appropriate for aperitif drinking (e.g., Axumit) — it’s rumored that French winemakers have been brought on board to help.

If the oak aged Rift Valley Syrah 2013 (of Castel Winery) is any indication of the future, the situation for Ethiopian wine is looking up. This wine is drinkable straight out of the bottle (or aired for a bit) on its own or paired with doro wat, mesir wat or shiro.

Less remarkable, though still good, is the Rift Valley Merlot 2013.

Although restaurants and hotels may sell these wines at the equivalent of $15/bottle, we were able to find each of them at approximately $7 from a night club in Lalibela. It never hurts to ask.

Conclusion

Ethiopian food demonstrates that we are a product of cultural and culinary evolution. A blend of influences, experiments and vessels carrying flavors that were once unknown.

If you’d like some homework, it’s this: find an Ethiopian restaurant, gather together some friends and go. Sample widely, don’t over-order, marvel at the injera bread with your eyes and mouth, and inspire yourself to travel to the source one day.

Melkam megeb! (መልካም ምግብ)

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A huge thanks goes to Fekadu Tesfaye, our G Adventures CEO (guide), who was incredibly patient and helpful with all our questions about Ethiopian food. When we showed our curiosity about Ethiopian cuisine, Fekadu made things happen for all of us — arranging a coffee ceremony and doro wat tasting at a friend of a friend’s home, coming across a village preparing food for a 500-person wedding, and organizing an impromptu cooking class.

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Disclosure: Our tour in Ethiopia was provided to us by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Ethiopia Highlights Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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From Kebabs to Khoresht: Eating Your Way Through Iranhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/iran-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/iran-food/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 18:19:51 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=14376 By Daniel Noll

“Eat an onion from each new place you visit to adjust your body to the local cuisine.” — Words of wisdom from one of our guides on the subtle appreciation of eating one’s way through Iran. Traditional Iranian cuisine combines the savory of fresh herbs and spices like saffron, merges it with the sweet of […]

The post From Kebabs to Khoresht: Eating Your Way Through Iran appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Daniel Noll

Spice Stand at Shiraz Bazaar - Iran
Spice mountains, Shiraz bazaar.

“Eat an onion from each new place you visit to adjust your body to the local cuisine.” — Words of wisdom from one of our guides on the subtle appreciation of eating one’s way through Iran.

Traditional Iranian cuisine combines the savory of fresh herbs and spices like saffron, merges it with the sweet of pomegranate, barberry and cinnamon and tops it all off with a flourish of nuts, dried fruits and beans. The result: not to present one distinct flavor, but to serve up layers that keep the taste buds guessing as to what is and what’s coming next.

Although this article could be entitled Persian Food, today’s greater Iran is ethnically broader than its Persian roots. So too its cuisine. Influences on the Iranian table draw from across Central Asia, Turkey, throughout Mesopotamia, and most notably from its own Azerbaijani Turkish population — to yield a cuisine that is influenced by it all, yet somehow distinctly different.

Kebab Master - Outside Kermanshah, Iran
Kebab master at a truck stop outside of Kermanshah, Western Iran.

Here are a few favorite, notable and common Iranian dishes that we found in the weeks we traveled across Iran.

Let’s eat! Nusheh jân!

Iranian Food Staples

Kebab

Kebabs for Dinner in Rasht, Iran
An assortment of kebabs for dinner in Iran.

Kebabs are taken very seriously in Iran – so seriously that the kebab menu alone may run a few pages and feature every style and cut of skewerable grill-worthy meat imaginable. The first few times someone invites you to dine with them in Iran, you’ll be tempted to think the entire country kebab-powered.

Lamb, minced or in chunks, is most popular. And kebabs are often served with grilled tomatoes, a healthy plate of rice and flat bread, and raw onions. (One roadside kebab stand thought we were crazy for suggesting the onions be grilled.) Our favorite: kebab koobideh, minced lamb mixed with herbs. You’ll find that one kebab order is often more than enough for two people to share.

Rice

To say that rice, a 4,000 year old staple of Iranian eating, is hugely important to the Iranian food landscape: culinary understatement. In our cursory look, taste and research of the subject of Iranian rice, it’s clear that a full-length dissertation could be written about the subject, after which arguments of clarification of terms and names of dishes will ensue.

Chelo

Trademark fluffy white Iranian rice served with kebabs, stews and other mains.

Tah Deeg (Tah dig)

Bottom of the pot rice crust served by itself or merged with slices of potato, flats of bread, meat, vegetable, fruit and nuts like pistachio.

Polo

Baqala Polo (Rice with Dill and Beans) - Shiraz, Iran
Shirazi baqala polo (rice with dill and beans).

Like its cousins pilaf and plov), polo is a generic term for rice mixed or blended with nuts, vegetables, beans and dried fruits.

Abkesh

Drained, sieved rice cooked until its moist, then layered with bread or potato and blend them with oil in bottom of pot. It’s topped with a bit of saffron and small minced pistachios.

Kateh

Soft, clumped rice with a slight crust served in Northern Iran. Kateh polo is softer than Abkesh and is usually served in traditional restaurants in villages and rural areas.

For a delightful and detailed layman’s guide to making Iranian/Persian rice the right way, check out this post.

Khoresht (Iranian Stew)

Iranian Stews - Tehran, Iran
Tehrani buffet: several types of khoresht with a chunk of tal deeg rice crust.

After kebabs, stews are the most common dishes you’ll find on the menu at local restaurants in Iran. Most often, Iranian khoresht will feature some sort of vegetable blend (e.g., lentils, spinach, mixed vegetable sabzi, beans, tomato, or eggplant) with a bit of meat thrown in. Khoresht is often served with rice and serves as a comfort food (e.g., as in chelo khoresht, rice and stew).

Some khoresht favorites include: Khoresht-e-Ghorme-sabzi, a stew of meat, vegetables and beans that features a bit of a greenish appearance; and Khoresht-e-Ghymeh, a stew of meat, potato, tomato and split peas.

Other Iranian Main Dishes

Zereshk Polo

Chicken and Berberries - Tabriz, Iran
Zereshk Polo with chicken.

Literally, barberry rice. However, quite often served with grilled chicken or served alongside kebab.

Fesenjen

Though technically a khoresht, fesenjen (Khoresht-e-Fesnjan) stands alone. At turns tart, sweet and savory, fesenjan is a stew of ground walnut, pomegranate juice mixed with your meat of choice (chicken is most common). Regional variation will yield, sour and savory fesenjan in Northern Iran while you’re apt to get something a little bit sweeter elsewhere.

Fesenjan is typically a special occasion dish, so you won’t find this on the daily menu in most restaurants. You may have to make arrangements to have it prepared especially. Ask around. It’s most certainly worth the effort.

Dizi and Abgoosht

Dizi, Iranian Stew - Hamadan, Iran
Straining the liquid from dizi in the mountains outside of Hamadan.

Dizi and abgoosht are competing names for stone pot Persian stew that’s consumed following an almost ritualized eating procedure.

Dizi is a hearty, heavy dish fit for the mountains, featuring mutton soup broth thickened with chickpeas, onion, potato, tomatoes, turmeric and various other white beans, all cooked in ceramic pot. The liquid is then strained away and served in a bowl on the side. As an interactive bonus, you’re given a pestle-type instrument to crush and mash to a pulp the solid bits (gusht-e kubideh) left in your stone pot. Served with flat bread (piti) and the occasional side of pickled vegetables.

Tabriz Köfte (Koofteh Tabrizi)

Tabriz Kofte and Fresh Herbs - Jolfa, Iran
Homemade Tabriz köfte piled high with fresh herbs and green onions.

When offering Iranian food recommendations, a good Iranian friend said of Tabriz Köfte: “A huge meatball with surprises inside, very nice if you can find it.”

We were fortunate to try it twice, once in a restaurant and once homemade as part of a picnic at St. Stephanos church. The latter was the clear winner for freshness and taste.

Tabriz Köfte can be found in the northwestern part of Iran, the provincial capital of which is the city of Tabriz. It’s a variation of the traditional Turkish köfte (minced meatball). The Tabriz köfte is essentially an oversized meatball made from either minced meat and spices (or for vegetarians, barley and spices), served with piles of fresh greens and herbs. After all those kebabs, Tabriz köfte strikes the body as refreshing, particularly when it’s served on flatbread with all those greens.

Lubia Sabz

Iranian green been stew. We list this dish not because we had the good fortune to eat it, but because in retrospect we should have sought it out, particularly because we’d traveled with a vegetarian during one segment of our trip and she had a notably difficult time finding vegetables untainted by meat. If you are vegetarian and traveling in Iran, ask for lubia (beans) and in particular, lubia sabz.

Mirza Qasemi (Mirza ghasemi)

A tasty vegetarian dish that hails from the Northern Iranian Caspian region. It’s based on roasted skewered eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomato, turmeric, oil or butter, and salt. The seasoned eggplant is then turned with eggs. The whole thing is then served with bread or rice.

Ash (Soup)

Traditional Iranian Soup in Mountains
Enjoying a bowl of ash-reshteh in a mountain hut, Masuleh.

A thick, almost stew-like soup. However, you’ll find ash in all varieties of thin and thick depending on where you are in the country and who happens to be stirring the pot. We enjoyed one of our favorite bowls of ash with a bunch of guys crammed into a soup cafeteria on their lunch break in Tabriz. Another tasty variety is Ash-Reshteh (nooodles, vegetables and herbs) that we had the good fortune to enjoy in the mountains village of Masuleh.

Iranian Street Snacks

Fava beans

Steamed and Spiced Fava Beans - Kermanshah, Iran
Spiced fava bean mountains, in the Hamadan hills.

Steamed & spiced fava beans are a popular street snack, especially in the mountains. Delicious with some vinegar, red pepper and marjoram. After all the meat we’d eaten in Iran, our group was thrilled to inject some legumes into the diet. We ate almost the entire stash below. Joking (kind of).

Street Beets (Roasted Red Beets)

Ardabil Beets in Iran
Roasted red beets on the streets of Ardabil.

I don’t know if roasted red beets are typical to the Iranian street food scene, but this display of roasted beets on a stick in the Northern Iranian town of Ardabil was one of the more beautiful and unique street food presentations we’d seen in a while.

Street beets, who knew?

Breads

Interesting how the Farsi word for bread (nan) is similar to the Indian term. Linguistic history often gives a sense of how much we all have in common and how far back that shared history really goes.

Lavash (Nan-Lavash)

The thin, flaky, sometimes almost paper-y (wallpaper-y) bread found widely throughout the Middle East and neighboring regions.

Sangyeh (Nan-Sangak)

Lavash Fresh from Oven - Kermanshah, Iran
Mmmm. Sangyeh, Iranian flat bread fresh from the bakery.

A stretchy elliptical bread usually baked on a bed of small stones or pebbles. Perhaps the most common bread you’ll find across Iran. Comes plain or in varieties topped with sesame or other seeds. If you’ve done everything right, you should have secured a few slabs of sangyeh as gifts (that is, for free) along your travels across Iran.

Barbari (Nan-e-Barbari)

A thick bread, oval-shaped and the famous bread staple of the northwestern Iranian town of Tabriz. Perfect to bring along and share on train ride from Tabriz to Istanbul. Our guide, Ali, knew this and bought us a bagful to help us survive our 60-hour journey.

Iranian Desserts

Falooda (Faloodeh) Shirazi

Shiraz Paloodeh (Ice Cream) - Iran
Bowl of faloodah, old school Iranian ice cream in Shiraz.

Vermicelli noodles sloshed in a cold syrup of sugar and rose water. You can also ask for a sweet lemon juice variety. A specialty of the town of Shiraz. In the short time that we hung out in the old Shiraz bazaar we were offered so many bowls of falooda that we had to start turning them away. Locals are proud to share this with visitors.

Iranian Ice Cream

Iranian Ice Cream in Shiraz
Pistachio and saffron ice cream in Shiraz.

Iranian ice cream gets its own entry because it has been said that Iran is the birthplace of the miracle we’ve come to know as ice cream. We’re not here to dispute or affirm that, however. The local varieties we’d tasted were sweet, often fruity, not especially creamy, and somewhat strappy compared to the ice creams and gelatos we’ve come to love. In any event, do as the locals do and take a dip of flavors, especially saffron and pistachio.

Aab Havij Bantani (Carrot Juice Ice Cream Float)

Carrot juice ice cream float, often garnished with cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices. In full disclosure, we thought the mixture was a bit sweet and preferred to drink the carrot juice plain, sans ice cream. But it’s worth trying at least once.

Halva

Pistachio Halva - Tabriz Market, Iran
Pistachio halva at the Tabriz Central Bazaar.

This is a popular dessert across this part of the world, especially in neighboring Turkey. A sweet made from ground sesame paste (tahini), halva not only satisfies the sweet tooth but it’s also packed with protein. One could call it the original power bar.

Nokhodchi (Chickpea Cookies)

Nokhodchi (Chickpea Cookies) - Esfahan, Iran
Melt-in-your-mouth nokhodchi (Chickpea Cookies) in Esfahan.

OK, these things are amazing and fabulously unique to Iran. Four leaf clover-shaped cookies made from finely sifted chickpea flour, rose water, powdered sugar and sweet spices like cardamom — topped off with finely chopped pistachios. The result: melt in your mouth magic.

Buy kilos of them, for as easy as they are to make at home, to make them well is an art exquisitely executed by only the finest bakeries in Iran.

Gaz

Traditional Persian nougat based on the milky sap collected from angebin, a plant from the Tamarisk family found only in the dry outskirts of the Iranian city of Esfahan. Gaz is spun with various ingredients including rose water, pistachio, almond kernels and saffron. Gaz is a specialty in the tourist center of Esfahan where you’ll find shops selling all variations and qualities. Stock up if you are looking for gifts for the sweet-toothed. Hint: Look for and purchase the gaz varieties with the highest pistachio count.

Lavashak

Fruit Leather - Kandovan, Iran
Apricot and pomegranate lavashak (fruit leather) in Kandovan province.

Persian-style fruit leather. Iran is a dried fruit mecca, so fruit leather fits. The taste, consistency and value is absolutely nothing like you’ll get from packaged fruit roll-ups in your local grocery store. The sweet-tart fruit flavor will make your mouth pucker like never before, after which you won’t be able to stop tearing off strips and eating large chunks like an animal. Some of our favorite lavashak flavors include pomegranate, apricot and sour plum. Beware of lavashak vendors, however. You may think you’re buying only a small piece, but you’ll end up with enough fruit leather to make an outfit.

Koloocheh (Klucheh)

Klucheh, Iranian Cookies - Fuman, Iran
Koloocheh from the town Fuman, northwest Iran.

Decorative yet tasty cookies that are special to the town of Fuman (northwestern Iran). The town is flush with bakeries selling only these cookies. Koloocheh are stuffed with a cinnamon, walnut and sugar filling. When they are fresh and warm just out of the oven, they are special packages of melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

Khoshkar

Iranian Desserts at Rasht Market, Iran
Khoshkar bakers at the Rasht central market.

If you come across a pastry-ish cookie-like confection that looks like a gauze bandage, you’ve found reshte and khoshkar, specialties of the Caspian area (and specifically the town of Rasht). The khoshkar bandages or leaves are stuffed with walnut, sugar and cinnamon, are typically fried and soaked in a sweet liquid. Reshte are similar to Khoshkar, but come without walnuts or sugar.

Our good friend from Rasht highly recommends these delights be consumed with a good cup of black tea.

Iranian Drinks

Doogh

Iranian Doogh (Yogurt) - Yazd, Iran
Do you like doogh? The word alone fascinates us.

Doogh is a chilled thin plain yogurt drink, often served with mint and other dried herbs sprinkled on top. Doogh is surprisingly refreshing on a hot day. It also serves as a perfect complement to stomach-plunging, meat-heavy meals like kebabs.

Iranian “Beer”

Pomegranate Beer in Iran
Pomegranate “beer” in Iran

Although Iran is a dry country, every restaurant features a listing of something very generously referred to as “Iranian beer,” which is essentially a non-alcholoic fruit malt beverage, which under no circumstance ought to be referred to as beer. Perhaps the only equivalents outside of Iran would be drinks such as root “beer” and ginger “beer.”

Note that Iranian beers come in all different flavors, with pomegranate being our fitting favorite. Once you come to terms with the fact that you aren’t really drinking beer, you might actually find it refreshing.

Fresh Juice Stands

Juice Guys of Shiraz - Iran
The friendly juice guys of Shiraz. Melon, carrot, and pomegranate juices ready to go.

Fresh fruit juice abounds on city streets, especially in southern Iran. Our visit happened to coincide with pomegranate season and we drank generous glasses of it at every opportunity. Not to mention, pomegranate consumption in volume feels both cleansing and invigorating. Our other favorite juices include carrot and melon. Usually very reasonably priced.

Tea (chai)

Tea time in Tehran #dna2iran Iran
Black tea with a crystalized raw sugar wand. Taken in a misty tea house, Tehran.

Iranian tea rooms are hubs of social gathering. In Iran, it’s not just about drinking tea, but about lounging back on pasha-worthy cushions on the ground and spending hours with friends and colleagues. Tea houses may also offer qalyan (large water pipes or hookah), in which you can smoke sweet-flavored tobacco flavors like vanilla, apple, orange and mint.

Typically, black tea is served with crystalized raw sugar on a stick. Stir your tea with your crystalline staff and watch the sugar crystals melt away. A magic wand, of sorts.

Alcohol

When it comes to alcohol, Iran is about as bone dry as it comes. So you are going to find it very difficult to find alcohol at all. Having said that, rumors have it that alcohol such as locally brewed wines can be had in the back corners and behind closed doors of private affairs such as weddings. We don’t recommend you actively seek it out.

A Note for Vegetarians and Vegans in Iran

Iran, unfortunately, is not an ideal destination for vegetarians as vegetarianism is primarily understood on the level of “a little less meat in the stew.”

Can you find and eat vegetarian food in Iran? Certainly. Having said that, you might be limited to street snacks, breads, yogurt and picking in and around meals. If you are a vegetarian traveling to Iran, consider learning the names of a few key vegetarian dishes above, as well as “I am a vegetarian” in Farsi so that you are able to request them and be understood.

Regardless of what you prefer to eat and when you prefer to eat it, allow your curiosity to guide the culinary dimension of your trip through Iran. And you’ll also likely find yourself amidst conversations you’d never imagined having while traveling there.

Nusheh jân!

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Disclosure: Our trip to Iran was in cooperation with G Adventures as Wanderers in Residence. We paid our own transport to and from Iran, some expenses on the ground and for an additional one week private tour. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Our experiences above were from the G Adventures Discover Persia Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission that helps us continue to share stories like this. Thank you!

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From Tlayudas to Tamales (Eating Our Way Around Oaxaca)http://uncorneredmarket.com/oaxaca-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/oaxaca-food/#comments Mon, 16 Sep 2013 12:15:25 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13842 By Daniel Noll

If Mexican cuisine ranks as one of the world’s great cuisines (it was the first cuisine to receive UNESCO culinary heritage status), it’s certainly aided in part by what goes on in the kitchens of Oaxaca. Oaxacan food: roasted, subtle, rich, layered. Moles, chocolate, tiny avocados that taste faintly like licorice, giant balls of quesillo […]

The post From Tlayudas to Tamales (Eating Our Way Around Oaxaca) appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Daniel Noll

Oaxaca Food Mosaic
Mosaic of favorite Oaxacan dishes.

If Mexican cuisine ranks as one of the world’s great cuisines (it was the first cuisine to receive UNESCO culinary heritage status), it’s certainly aided in part by what goes on in the kitchens of Oaxaca. Oaxacan food: roasted, subtle, rich, layered. Moles, chocolate, tiny avocados that taste faintly like licorice, giant balls of quesillo cheese ribbons, grasshoppers, whopping Mexican pizzas, stunning grilled meats, corn fungus, mysterious herbs like epazote, and more types of chili peppers than you can shake a fire extinguisher at.

This is Oaxacan cuisine.

Oaxaca. Say it with me: Wa-ha-ka. We won’t lie: when we opted to spend a couple of months in Oaxaca, Mexico early last year its cuisine was certainly a major factor in our decision. We used the gourmandish pretext of “We need to discover what Oaxacan food is all about” as an excuse to explore the city and to eat ourselves silly. We took a Oaxacan cooking class to give ourselves background. We cornered our Mexican landlord each time we saw him to ask about his favorite street food stands. Some might say we were obsessed.

I say we were focused.

As friends and readers have made their way to Oaxaca over the last year or two, we’ve sent Oaxacan food information and recommendations in bits and bobs by email. Now it’s time to put it all together to share with you.

Note: Oaxaca, as we use it, will generally refer to the city of Oaxaca, the capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which kindly stretches down to a beautiful coastline in southern Mexico. Oaxacan restaurant and Oaxacan cooking class recommendations are listed within.

If you’d like to skip ahead:

Let’s dig in! ¡Buen provecho!

Oaxaca Street Snacks and Market Meals

1. Tlayudas

Tlayuda at Merced Market - Oaxaca, Mexico
Tlayuda with chicken tinga.

The oft-nicknamed “Oaxacan pizza,” a tlayuda consists of a large semi-dried tortilla, sometimes glazed with a thin layer of unrefined pork lard called asiento, and topped with refried beans (frijol), tomatoes, avocadoes, and some variation of meat (chorizo, tasajo or cencilla, or shredded chicken tinga). It can either be served open, or when it’s cooked on a charcoal grill, folded in half. One is often enough to feed two people. Tlayuda in Oaxaca recommendations: the stand just to the right of the entrance to the Carne Asadas aisle at Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Also, a hole-in-the-wall stand at Mercado de la Merced.

2. Huitlacoche Corn Fungus Tacos

Huitlacoche (Corn Smut) - Oaxaca, Mexico
Huitlacoche (dried corn fungus) before it goes into a delicious taco.

Huitlacoche is a corn fungus, but I prefer the term “corn smut”. Earthy, mushroomy, huitlacoche is also very much a texture play.  Make sure to get it fresh, although you can also find it in cans.  Canned corn smut, mmmm.  This is a seasonal item, but you might be lucky enough to make fresh corn smut tacos like we did at the Seasons of My Heart cooking school in Oaxaca.

3. Enfrijoladas

Enfrijoladas - Oaxaca, Mexico
Enfrijoladas for lunch at Mercado 20 de Noviembre.

Enfrijoladas are essentially fried tortillas served with beans and sauce.  The key in Oaxaca is that the beans are stewed with the leaves of the local avocado plant (see more below in the ingredients section). As our Oaxacan landlord’s wife would say, “It’s not real frijol if it doesn’t include avocado leaves.”  How about that!

4. Memelas (Memelitas)

Memelas for Breakfast - Oaxaca, Mexico
Memela with frijol, quesillo (Oaxacan cheese) and salsas. Oaxaca’s breakfast of champions?

A memela is corn round snack or antojito (“little craving”) a little thicker than a tortilla, toasted on a comal (large, flat hot pan) and topped with all manner of stuff: beans, quesillo (local stringy, brined cheese), bits of ground pork with spices or eggs, and various sauces of differing heat levels. Memelas became our favorite morning go-to snack, probably because a local family had a stand set up just down the street. Memela recommendations in Oaxaca: Street stand on Oaxaca (Huerto Los Ciruelos) in San José La Noria neighborhood.

5. Tetelas

Tetelas with Frijol - Oaxaca, Mexico
Tetela with frijol and salsa.

A tetela is a thin stuffed corn tortilla folded into triangle. Check out the tetelas with refried beans (frijoles) at Itanoni on Belisario Domínguez 513, Colonia Reforma, a laid back little place that specializes in the finer and artisanal points of corn masa and all that’s made with it.

6. Tacos

Tacos with Castillo Pork Filling - Oaxaca, Mexico
A plate of tacos castillo with a blow-your-mind selection of condiments for under $4.

I know, I know.  Tacos are broadly Mexican food not specific to Oaxaca.  But damn if we didn’t get some of the best tacos on the planet during our stay in town.  A good taqueria focuses on the meat, but doesn’t forget that the condiments make the difference. Our favorite taco place for excellent meat flavor, tortillas and generous high-value condiments: Los Mero Mero Sombrerudos (Universidad 112, Fraccionamiento Trinidad de las Huertas).

You’ll have your choice of taco meat (they’ll even give you a sample taste of all of them if you ask nicely), including al pastor, carnitas and castillo. Our favorite: the castillo, but you can get a plate with any combination (9 pesos/taco). They prepare the meat on the grill right up front. And if Sombrerudos doesn’t float your boat, there are other decent taquerias Oaxaqueños nearby on Universidad Street.

7. Tamales (traditional, corn husk)

Again, I know traditional tamales are very much a broadly Mexican dish, but get yourself to Oaxaca and check out the tamale recommendation from our landlord (who was also our dentist!). Tamales Mina is a simple street stand that shows up around 7:30 PM on the corner of Avenida Hidalgo and 20 de Noviembre. The grandmother behind the operation has been cranking out tamales for over 20 years (and our landlord swears the quality hasn’t changed). Fillings and sauce are tasty and generous. Today, her children sell the tamales for her at night. Grandma offers seven tamale flavors and all are good, but the mole coloradito and mole verde tamales were our favorites. Come early as a line forms quickly and they sell out quickly.

8. Tamales Oaxaqueños (or Tamales Hoja)

Oaxacan Tamale - Mexico
Tamale Oaxaqueño, a work of culinary art.

Banana leaf-wrapped tamales. They look like South American humitas, but they are the Oaxacan alternative leaf-wrapped tamales. Tamales Oaxaqueños feature similar fillings to the traditional tamale, like frijol (beans) or mole negro. To me, the leaf keeps the moisture in more reliably than the traditional corn husk. And anyhow, it doesn’t get any more beautiful than these.

9. Beer Snacks

What happens when you order 2 beers in #Oaxaca, Mexico. Lots of fun snacks & goodies included.
Beer snack culture in Oaxaca. Pay for the beers, the food is complimentary.

The greatest budget travel tip in the world is right here, people.  Go to the right bar in Oaxaca, order a beer for around $2 and eat all night for free. They’ll just keep bringing out more and more goodies, from fish soup to smoked meats to potato salads to endless bowls of nacho chips. But how, you ask?  This is the beer snack antojitos culture in Oaxaca. The place you’re likely to hear about most often is La Red, but our favorite was the rooftop of Rey de Oros (Aldama No. 304 location near Mercado 20 de Noviembre). Our preferred Mexican beer for a night of snacking: Victoria.

10. Carnes Asada (cecina, tasajo or chorizo)

Green Onions and Meat on Grill - Tlacolula, Mexico
Carnes asada in Oaxaca: choose your meat and vegetables. Then, en fuego!

Meat-lovers rejoice. Be certain to check out the pasillo de carnes asadas (grilled meats hall) in Oaxaca’s 20 de Noviembre market. It’s a grilled meat saloon. Although busy every day of the week, it’s packed with local families on weekends (especially Sundays).

Pick your meat: tasajo (thinly pounded beef, often air-dried to some extent), cecina (similarly thinly sliced pork), cecina enchilada (dusted with chili powder), and chorizo (Mexican sausage). Vegetarians don’t despair: the roasted vegetables are fabulous, as are the various vegetarian sauces and sides. The stand from which you choose your meat will grill everything for you.

If you are in the Oaxaca area over the weekend check out the Tlacolula Sunday market about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca and watch the meat get fired up.

11. Goat’s Head Soup

A specialty of the Tlacolula Sunday Market, worth a visit for taste, life and color.  Try the goat barbecue (barbacoa) and the goat soup consomme from the drippings. The entire scene is a fiesta.

12. Chile Relleno

Stuffed, roasted fresh poblano peppers.  Not native to Oaxaca per se, good rellenos are to be had throughout the various markets in town. What’s even nicer still: some are not dipped and fried in egg batter, but are served naked so you can see the pepper skin and experience the pepper flavor right out front, without the blanket of fried batter.

13. Jicama

Marinated Jicama at La Biznega - Oaxaca, Mexico
Jicama dusted with salt and chili dust, perfect with a day-ending drink.

Mexican turnip or root, sometimes referred to as the Mexican yam.  We’d find them served fresh, room temperature or chilled, and crispy as antojitos or snacks, dusted with salt or sugar and chili dust to go alongside a margarita or beer.  Our favorite, a somewhat upscale variety we found at La Biznaga García Vigil No. 512.

14. Empanadas

Empanadas on the Comal - Tlacolula Mexico
Empanadas warmed on a comal.

Not the South American dough pocket empanadas you may be accustomed to, Oaxacan empanadas look a lot like a big memela (but with larger, thinner dough) and are stuffed and warm-roasted on a comal (a large, metal pan used throughout Mexico for cooking tortillas, memelitas, and tlayudas, as well as roasting peppers and other vegetables). Our favorite empanada vendor hails at the local market in San José La Noria neighborhood on Jorge L. Tamayo Castellanos Avenida next to the fire station, but you’ll also find a great selection of empanadas cooked up to order at the Tlacolula Sunday market and Mercado 20 de Noviembre.

15. Entomatadas

Entomatadas - Oaxaca, Mexico
Entomatadas, lunch at the 20 de Noviembre market in Oaxaca.

Tortillas stuffed with quesillo, covered with a tomato-based sauce and topped with fresh cheese. Simple, hearty, good. A common lunch menu item at stalls throughout the 20 de Noviembre market.

16. Enchiladas

Enchiladas in Red Mole Sauce - Etla Market, Oaxaca
Enchiladas and mole colorado at Oaxaca’s Etla market.

Enchiladas, which you’ll find all over Mexico, are simply tortillas pan-fried with a chile sauce and served with some onion and cheese. Sometimes you’ll find them stuffed with meat or cheese, other times spicy tortillas alone. In Oaxaca, you’ll usually find enchiladas covered in a traditional Oaxacan mole sauce (see below for more on moles).

17. Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles is a dish composed of lightly fried tortilla strips or quarters topped with a wide-ranging regional and local variety of stuff not limited to salsas (green salsa verde seemed most common), meat (e.g., shredded chicken), refried beans, cheese like queso fresco or cotija, Mexican cream, and onions. Maybe even an egg. Typically an early day breakfast, lunch, brunch or somewhere in between offering.

18. Hibiscus Horn Cones

Habiscus Stuffed Fried Tortilla - Oaxaca, Mexico
Hibiscus stuffed fried tortillas.

Tortilla horns stuffed with seasoned hibiscus (or jamaica, the same reddish-purple stuff of jamaica agua fresca drink fame). Available at La Biznaga (García Vigil No. 512). A change-up from the traditional.

Oaxacan Moles

Oaxaca is also known as the land of the seven moles.

We always say that our mothers make the best mole. But on the Day of the Dead, everyone shares their mole with everyone else so we all know who really makes the best mole in the village,” Yolanda, our cooking class instructor, explained how proper mole preparation is a highly respected skill.

She continued: “You have to burn the peppers and then soak them to remove the bitter. If you don’t take the bitter out of the chili peppers, people will talk badly of you.

Talk about social pressure in the kitchen.

But what is a mole anyway? It’s a style of sauce made from roasted ingredients that are then ground together and slow simmered to allow the varied flavors to blend and play off one another in a way that no single ingredient might be detected. The result: rich, complex, diverse, complementary flavors.

Mole Coloradito Ingredients - Oaxaca, Mexico
Ingredients to make mole coloradito.

Oaxaca culinary fame is derived in great part from its seven varieties of moles. You’ll find moles served on top of chicken, meat or enchiladas, as well as tucked inside empanadas and tamales. But not every mole is one that you’d eat every day. Like a party dress, some are reserved only for very special occasions.

19. Mole Negro (black sauce)

This is the most famous of all Oaxacan moles, perhaps because of its complexity and heavy reliance on chocolate. “This is not a mole where you wake up in the morning and say on a whim, ‘I’m going to make mole negro today.’ It takes a lot of time to make and get it right,” Yolanda reminded us. Mole negro ingredients include a selection of dried chiles (chilhuacles negros, guajillo chiles, pasilla chiles, ancho negro (mulatto) chiles, chipotle chiles) with seeds taken out and then soaked in water and blended with chocolate, bread, etc.

20. Mole Colorado (red sauce)

One of the members of Oaxaca’s seven great moles. Mole Colorado (or Mole Rojo) sauce is made with a variety of peppers (pasilla, ancho and others), almonds, chocolate and a host of sweet and savory spices.

21. Mole Coloradito (little red sauce)

Mole Coloradito - Oaxaca, Mexico
Chicken with mole coloradito.

Based on market menus in Oaxaca, mole coloradito is among the most popular. Similar to mole colorado, it features a few more green leaf spices along with chiles guajillo, pasilla and ancho, lending it a color slightly less deep than that of the mole colorado.

22. Mole verde (green sauce)

Mole Verde Enchiladas - Oaxaca, Mexico
Mole verde enchiladas from the Noria Market.

A mole made to show off local herbs and greens, mole verde can feature any number of the following items: epazote, hoja santa, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, poblano peppers, jalapeño peppers, parsley, spinach and nopales (cactus leaves).

23. Mole amarillo (yellow sauce)

Given that this sauce is more often red than yellow, the name always threw us off. Mole amarillo is a less complex mole made from guajillo an ancho chilies that almost looks like a sort of Mexican marinara. What makes it different from the red moles is that absence of nuts, chocolate and sweet bits like raisins.

Moles we haven’t tried…yet

The remaining two moles are more difficult to find in the markets and in the every day. We confess that we did not try them, but wanted to highlight them among the “7 Moles of Oaxaca” and as something to seek out for the food curious among you.
1. Mole Chichilo
2. Mole Manchamantel (literally, tablecloth staining sauce)

Key Ingredients of Oaxacan Cuisine

24. Avocado leaves (hojas de aguacate)

Not any old avocado leaves, but avocado leaves from the Mexican avocado (Persea drymifolia) that impart a flavor of anise or licorice. This is an important flavor in the Oaxacan frijol (beans). Best toasted on a comal, a concave or flat Mexican griddle. Absolutely unique and delicious, and essential to local Oaxacan cuisine.

25. Avocado Criollo

An avocado where you can eat the skin! Criollo avocados are a local Oaxacan variety that are usually quite small and feature a soft skin that you can actually eat (a bit of an odd sensation, really). Much like its leaves which are used to flavor bean pots and other dishes, the avocado features a subtle anise flavor.

26. Epazote

Don’t eat epazote by itself, but be aware that it’s one of fine subtle herbs that makes Mexican food (and Oaxacan food) taste so good. From the Aztec words for skunk and sweat, epazote is that inimitable flavor of pepper, mint and something wild that you’ll typically find stewed into various dishes. Rumor also has it that epazote decreases flatulence. But what would I care? Perhaps that’s why it’s stewed into beans and onions to make frijoles de la olla. Epazote is also referred to as wormseed and Jesuit’s tea, among others.

27. Chapulines (Grasshoppers)

Chapulines: you must try them. Think crunchy like popcorn shells and eaten voluminously like potato chips. Chapulines are ideal on top of a tlayuda. Maybe that’s why when you buy a tlayuda at the Mercado 20 Noviembre, the chapulines vendors will gather ’round.

28. Quesillo (Oaxacan cheese)

We joke that quesillo is like string cheese or mozzarella, but with a bit more of a salt tang because it is brined. At the market, quesillo is often stored in long white ribbons that are wound, unwound and cut like a ball of yarn or trim at a fabric shop. About two meters of quesillo equals one kilo. It’s best to eat or use quesillo fresh, since storing it for any length of time in the refrigerator will alter its consistency.

29. Peppers

Dried Chilies at Juarez Market - Oaxaca, Mexico
Dried chili peppers at Oaxaca’s Juarez Market.

Wow, Oaxacan peppers! Ancho, poblano, pasilla, chilaca, chile negro — you name it. Some of them go by multiple names. The one best known to Oaxaca is the pasilla chile. But beware, if you come shopping for a particular pepper that you need for a recipe, you ought to come armed with a photo of the one(s) you need, as names are often applied interchangeably. Some are easy-going, some are en fuego. Where to begin? Take a walk through any market (Mercado de 20 Noviembre pepper section will overwhelm) and you will be blown away, almost to tears, by the vast selection of fresh and dried peppers on offer. Each one has its purpose, whether it’s a dried pepper for a specific style of mole a fresh one for stuffed pepper (chile relleno). Habanero peppers are not used as often in Oaxaca as they are in nearby Yucatan and Chiapas.

30. Chocolate

Cocoa Beans at Chocolate Mayordomo - Oaxaca, Mexico
Cocoa beans before they become chocolate at Chocolate Mayordomo

Chocolate has been a staple of this region since ancient times. It is not usually eaten, but instead is used in drinks and also as a crucial defining ingredient of the cuisine, including in several of Oaxaca’s famous moles. The aroma of freshly ground chocolate literally takes over the streets around the 20 de Noviembre market; this is a hub for the region’s chocolate producers. Be sure to visit Chocolate Mayordomo where chocolates of varying intensity and sweetness are ground from fresh cocoa beans (cacao).

31. Chicharrón

Pork skin. You can certainly try it on its own as a snack, but you might also get it thrown in atop a tlayuda or other dish for crunch and flavor.

32. Hoja Santa

Hoja Santa (“sacred leaf”) is a popular Mexican herb used to flavor various chocolate drinks, soups, stews and Oaxacan mole verde. The fresh leaves, used to impart a faint pepper licorice flavor, are sometimes also used to wrap tamales (see tamales hojas). The dried leaves can be used as a seasoning, but they are more flavorful when fresh.

33. Squash Blossoms (Flor de Calabazas)

If you are hanging out in Oaxaca for a while and have access to a kitchen, try finding squash blossoms at one of the local Oaxaca markets. Take them home and make deep fried squash blossoms, cheese-filled squash blossoms, or even squash blossom soup. Or take the easy way out and find a market vendor who fries squash blossoms with onions and poblanos and tucks them with some quesillo into an empanada or quesadilla.

Drinks in Oaxaca

34. Tejate

Making Tejate Drink - Etla Market, Oaxaca
A tejate vendor at the Etla Market.

An indigenous drink (from the Mixtec and Zapotec people) made of corn, cacao, and other unusual bits like the seeds of the mamey (or zapote) and flor de cacao (or Rosita de cacao). As such, the drink is mildly chocolatey and earthy. It feels like it ought to do something transcendental to you. We tried our hand at a couple versions, including at one of the stands in the main hall of Oaxaca’s Etla market.

35. Hot Chocolate

Yes, you have to try real hot chocolate. Even though you may be accustomed to taking it with milk (de leche), try it local style with water (de agua). Wherever you buy it, be certain to ask for it nice and frothy, preferably using a hand-spun frother called a molinillo. A good place to try several types of chocolate is Chocolate Mayordomo.

36. Coffee

Though coffee culture suffers south of the Mexican border (it is getting better), it’s alive and well in Oaxaca. So alive and well, I might go so far as to say I’ve had some of the most consistently good coffee ever in my life in Oaxaca. Just check it out and let us know. Best coffee in Oaxaca? We say Cafe Nuevo Mundo.

37. Beer

If you drink beer, you must drink beer in Oaxaca, so you can be a world beer aficionado. Corona? I’m sorry, but I try to avoid touching the stuff. Pacifico and Negra Modelo are OK, but our favorite refreshing go-to beer: Victoria. If you want something different, try Cucapá, a Mexicali microbrew.

38. Mezcal

Mezcal Tasting - Oaxaca, Mexico
Mezcal tasting at a mezcalaria just outside of Oaxaca.

Growing up, I always thought of mezcal as dirty, like an outlaw tequila. It was probably the agave worm, which by the way does not appear in all bottles of mezcal. So what is it? I go to Oaxaca and I find the real story (or at least the story told by Oaxaquenos): A smoky, double-distilled roasted mash made from the heart of the maguey plant (of the agave family) called a piña (as in pineapple, which is not surprising as the maguey hearts look like enormous barrel-sized pineapples hearts). Tequila, by the way, is a specific type of mezcal made from the blue agave.

39. Margaritas

By no means am I a margarita expert, but I certainly enjoyed a margarita (or two) on the rocks in Oaxaca. Blended margaritas are for the beach. I liked the margaritas at La Biznaga.

Oaxaca Fruits and Sweets

40. Tuna Ice Cream

No, it’s not what you think. Tuna is the name of the colorful fruit tip of the prickly pear cactus. In and around Oaxaca, you can find ice cream, ice milk and bright slushy-type stuff made from tuna the fruit, not the fish from the sea!

41. Oaxaca Fruit and Juice

I know, I know. You are thinking super lame entry, right? But here’s the deal, the fruit in Oaxaca is excellent and is often quite inexpensive if you know where to look. And if you are lazy, it’s often sliced up for you, ready to eat. Fruit is also a great way to balance out all those heavy foods and to rehydrate. Eat your fruit!

You’ll find the traditional stuff like watermelon, pineapple and a little further afield like papaya or mango on the street or near markets. Check out the fruit stands at the southeast corner of 20 Noviembre market. To go further still, don’t forget to poke around, be curious and check out the following fruit in whole form or in juice: guanabana, zapote, chico, zapote, chamoy and maracuya (passion fruit).

I’m a fruit-by-itself kind of guy, but the Oaxacan locals love fruit cut in a bag and dashed with chili pepper, lime juice and salt. Surprising to some, it’s particularly refreshing on a hot day.

If you find yourself in Oaxaca, you gotta juice. Juice stands abound throughout Oaxaca’s streets and in its markets. One of our favorite juice stands: Jugos Angelita stand at the Sanchez Pascuas market. Try one or two of the cleansing blends, especially after a night of — you guessed it — margaritas.

So that’s it, folks. Get yourself to Oaxaca and explore, eat heartily, and eat well! Anything we missed or messed, leave us a comment!

¡Buen provecho!

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Bunny Chow Serendipityhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/bunny-chow-durban/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/bunny-chow-durban/#comments Sun, 19 May 2013 18:25:52 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=13354 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about an afternoon in Durban, South Africa where everything seemed to go wrong, but somehow ended up right. It’s also everything you ever wanted to know about bunny chow but were afraid to ask. As our chow-master drizzled the final layer spoonful of gram dal atop an already generous mountain, each […]

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By Audrey Scott

Ultimate Bunny Chow! 5-layer vegetarian via Little Gujarat resto in Durban #SouthAfrica #awesomesauce
The Ultimate Bunny Chow in Durban

This is a story about an afternoon in Durban, South Africa where everything seemed to go wrong, but somehow ended up right. It’s also everything you ever wanted to know about bunny chow but were afraid to ask.

As our chow-master drizzled the final layer spoonful of gram dal atop an already generous mountain, each of our senses aligned themselves in appreciation of something approaching culinary perfection.

The aroma of fresh spices, the tinkling of ladles, the din of restoration, the scene of satisfaction, and the heaviness of kitchen air that lands just so on the surface of the skin. This is masala, literally a mix.

Pent up hunger and a longer journey than expected conspired to place us at the precipice of something so good we’d bet our lives on it.

But how did we deliver ourselves to something so satisfying after so many wrong turns?

Timely Trains and Bustling Markets That Weren’t

Public transport and markets: two contexts we often use to orient ourselves, to interact with and appreciate ordinary people, and to find something about a place that the brochures surely missed. So when we eyed the Durban city map and realized that we could take Metrorail, the public train, to get from Moses Mahbida Stadium to Victoria Street Market, we figured: perfect combination.

But it was Sunday, sleepy. The train station was dusty and desolate, ticket offices were closed. After clearing the automated gates, we were just late for a departing train. We found ourselves the only ones on the platform, save the cleaning lady. We asked her about the train.

It comes,” she reassured us.

A few minutes later another hopeful passenger emerged: “The train comes.

Then, a security guard arrived: “It comes.

The train never came.

Victoria Street Market, In Search of Lunch

Should you find yourself in Durban and possess an even faint interest in food and spice markets, Victoria Street Market is supposed to be the place. Images of heaping piles of brightly colored Indian spices danced in our heads. Dreams of cheap, delicious food stalls wafting with curries, too.

The reality? By the time we arrived, closing time for all, except an occasional souvenir store. A few hours late, we found ourselves defeated. Starving, too.

On our way out, we passed a convenience store whose entrance featured a few square metal tins filled with spices. I smiled at the Indian man presiding over his small empire as I passed.

A few meters on, I turned around. An instinct told me he held the keys to changing the course of our day. I gave into what felt like a stereotype: “He’s Indian. He’s selling spices. He must know where to find good Indian food in the area.”

Could you recommend a place to eat nearby? Where do you eat lunch?” I asked.

Do you like Indian food?” he shot back, excited.

I couldn’t nod energetically enough.

It’s a simple place, vegetarian food. Very good, where I go for lunch. And it should still be open. It’s called Little Gujarat. I have lunch there often.

Sold.

A few minutes and several wrong turns later, we arrived. The aroma of popped Indian spice wafted into the street.

This was it.

Little Gujarat Restaurant - Durban, South Africa
Little Gujarat Restaurant – Durban, South Africa

Inside, simple tables and chairs took up one side, as the kitchen counter and dozens of cafeteria vats loaded with curries and masalas – from greens to beans – took up the other. Two Indian women moved quickly, customers bustled, too. Homemade menus from a family printer listing options and specials — from rotis to dosai — adorned the walls. Prices? Sub $2.00. The feel: family and restorative, cafeteria yet caring.

This was our kind of place.

At this point, you might be asking: Indian food in South Africa? And what the heck is bunny chow?

Gandhi, Durban Indians and Bunny Chow

Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, also happens to be the biggest “Indian” city outside of India.

Why is this?

In the late 19th century, the British brought thousands of indentured servants from India to work the sugar cane plantations of KwaZulu-Natal and to build the Trans-Natal Railway. A wave of immigration followed as traders sought business opportunities and a better life. Mahatma Gandhi even arrived in Durban in 1893 as a young lawyer and spent a surprising 20 years in South Africa. Today, Indian-South Africans make up about 30% of Durban’s population.

But what of this bunny chow you refer to?

Bunny chow is essentially a hollowed out piece of plain, white sandwich bread stuffed with curry (or masala, if you like). There are many legends as to how the dish came to be, but the one we heard most often from Durbanites goes something like this:
Mr. Bunny, an indentured servant working the sugar cane plantations, was challenged by how to bring his lunch with him into the fields. Curry can be unwieldy, messy, overwhelming. To mitigate all these, Mr. Bunny’s clever wife nipped it all the bud by burying curry into a loaf of bread so that his lunch was self-contained and field-ready to eat.

Today, bunny chow is a legend in Durban.

The Ultimate 5-Layer Bunny Chow

Back at Little Gujurat, we were overwhelmed by choice. “Which curry do you want?” the woman behind the counter asked.

This was a critical moment. We almost choked. Instead, Dan asked her, “Which are your favorites?”

A bizarre question judging by her initial reaction – a sort of “Who are these crazy folks who can’t make a simple decision?” She quickly eased into a smile, pointing to the curry vats below.

Then, you could see a click in their eyes. They both broke in the same direction. “Can we have a bit of each? Is that OK?” Dan asked hopefully.

Win.

She nodded and put her expertise to work. Each of the five layers were imprecise yet somehow perfect: sugar bean curry, moong dal, gram dal, broad bean curry, and mixed veg curry. This was a culinary tour de force.

Would it all work together?

It certainly smelled outstanding. Dan began to pant. I think I saw tears.

The man of the house came out from the back and witnessed our excitement. (He smiled. There’s nothing like the beauty of subtle, restrained pride.) As we photographed our tower of bunny chow from every angle, he added a finishing touch: a little bread “hat” and a topper of dal gravy for dramatic effect.

Painfully beautiful at $1.50.

We’re embarrassed to say that we didn’t stop with bunny chow. We ordered a bowl of pumpkin curry, dal and two fresh rotis. Then I insisted on a plate of pani puri, the Indian chaat food combination of sweet (tamarind sauce) with savoury (spicy cilantro, chili and black salt sauce) I adore.

Pani Puri at Little Gujarat - Durban, South Africa
Pani Puri at Little Gujarat – Durban

Although the pani puri and roti and masalas were all good, the five-layer bunny chow was something transcendent. It stole the show and qualified as the best Indian food we’d eaten in years, at least as far back as our last visit to the subcontinent in 2008.

Human Connection, Ultimate Beauty
As we waddled up to the counter in our fullness to settle our bill, the owner asked us what we were doing in Durban. We explained, and he decided it was his duty to show where and how to truly enjoy his city.

He disappeared for a moment, and proceeded to rifle through every piece of paper in his desk drawers and cabinet. We waited, unaware of what was going on. Finally, his wife pulled a paper from her purse and the man’s smile grew big.

The magic paper: a discount coupon for the aquarium. He went over everything on the paper, from what we would see there to how much the coupon saved us. The likelihood that we would have time to actually use the coupon was slim to none, but at the foot of kindness, you graciously accept what’s given you. Good will, whatever the circumstances, ought to be preserved.

We took it, thanked him and his family profusely, and paid. The grand total for our Indian feast gorge? Roughly $5.00.

Even though things don’t always work out as we’ve planned, they do work out somehow as they were meant to be, and even in our favor.

These are the times that you want to throw your arms around the world.

We walked out. Then walked back in, asked to take a photo – if only to remember the moment, because the moment itself was enough to carry us away.

People behind Little Gujarat Restaurant - Durban, South Africa
The friendly folks behind Little Gujarat Restaurant in Durban.

Practical Details for Little Gujarat Vegetarian Restaurant:
Address: 107 Prince Edward Street (or 106 Dr. Goonam Street), just a few blocks from Victoria Street Market.

Disclosure: This campaign is brought to you by the South Africa Tourism Board and is supported and managed by iambassador. As always, the opinions expressed here — including our love for this bunny chow — are entirely our own.

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An Ode to Haggishttp://uncorneredmarket.com/ode-to-haggis/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ode-to-haggis/#comments Fri, 18 Jan 2013 14:10:22 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12667 By Daniel Noll

This is a story about making peace with a squishy edible ball of sheep innards, and a song I rewrote to help me through the process. I have a confession to make. I was afraid of haggis, almost deathly so. You could say I harbored an irrational fear of the stuff. Yes, haggis. And yes, […]

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By Daniel Noll

This is a story about making peace with a squishy edible ball of sheep innards, and a song I rewrote to help me through the process.

I have a confession to make. I was afraid of haggis, almost deathly so. You could say I harbored an irrational fear of the stuff. Yes, haggis.

And yes, me. The guy who’s eaten a lot of sh*t and then some. The guy who’s eaten bugs, balls and innards, tongues, goat jaw bones, and all manner of bits and bobs. And that’s the stuff I was aware of. I’m sure I’ve unknowingly eaten cat and dog and maybe even someone’s pet hamster.

But I gotta be honest: before my recent visit to Scotland, the thought of haggis kinda’ freaked me out. Culinary fear of the ground unknown.

I’d had bad dreams — bad dreams about haggis. Haggis was a mystery. I was so afraid of it that I couldn’t even bear looking up to see what it actually was.

(By the way, the official definition of haggis, if you’re wondering: a traditional pudding made of the heart, liver, etc., of a sheep or calf, minced with suet and oatmeal,seasoned, and boiled in the stomach of the animal.)

And all of this made me feel a wee sheepish.

My History with Haggis

Maybe it’s the word. Haggis. It just doesn’t sound right, does it? Haggis. It’s onomatopoetic, like something hanging down, dripping, dragging. Haggis. Like a post-disembowlment draping of innards on a clothesline. I look at the word and it does weird things to me. Haggis. It makes my skin creep, it gives me the willies. Before I got to know haggis, I always — perhaps unfairly — associated it with this photo (be sure to read the caption).

Then there’s the silly film So I Married an Axe Murderer. “Harriet, Harr-i-et, hard-hearted harbinger of haggis,” Mike Myers’ character Charlie MacKenzie would crow during his stand-up routine.

Haggis, you know there’s a problem with you when you have harbingers.

How Then, The Haggis?

Then I visited Scotland. There in Edinburgh, I was introduced to deep-fried haggis logs. Deep fried haggis logs!?!? Why not serve deep-fried antichrist? Actually deep fried logs of just about anything ought to frighten us, but these particular digestive hijackings looked like something we men could never in a million years imagine happening to us.

Yes, that. You know what I mean. And if you don’t, may I introduce you to Lorena Bobbit. Yes, that. Haggis.

There’s a popular rendition of haggis called Haggis, Neeps and Tatties. Basically a poo-shaped pile of haggis sided with piles of mashed turnips (the neeps) and mashed potatoes (the tatties). Haggis, neeps and tatties. The sound of that dish, at once childlike and pornographic. I pull the blanket up over my head. Haggis.

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties - Edinburgh, Scotland
Holy poop, it’s haggis!

I was so stricken with fear that I sought to shield myself. If I were to lose my haggis virginity, perhaps there was a preferred method. I would set off to find it, to seek the haggis with which I might make peace.

I asked our first taxi driver in Edinburgh where to eat it. “You could buy haggis at the butcher, but it wouldn’t taste like much,” he framed his recommendation. “It’s about where you get it and how you prepare it. It’s not going to taste interesting to you…

Sounded fair and balanced, like a good FOX News episode. Innocuous enough. (I kid)

Hmmm,” I said.

That’s when he suggested, “You can get it with a whisky sauce.”

Now you’ve got my attention.

Later, a friend recommended a restaurant that served something she called a “Haggis Tower.” Haggis Tower? Sounds like an office building crying out for its own demolition. A tower of innards, probably pulsing. The Leaning Tower of Haggis. Why on Earth would anyone want a god-forsaken pile of such a thing? Haggis.

Eventually, after multiple consultations with taxi drivers, tour guides and five-star hotel concierges, Audrey and I opted for the Bard’s Haggis at 1780 pub, a mini mountain of the stuff on a pile of mashed potatoes, all drizzled in whisky sauce. I hesitated for a moment, dark bits staring back at me. Then I ate it.

It wasn’t that bad.

Haggis, Mashed Potatoes and Whisky Cream Sauce - Edinburgh, Scotland
Haggis, Mashed Potatoes and Whisky Cream Sauce.

Honestly, it was pretty good. Actually, Audrey and I scarfed it, devoured it like it was our last meal. (I’m certain there was a drug in it.) Or perhaps the truth: just about anything tastes good with whisky cream sauce, and even better when you wash it down with a pint of freshly-pulled Scottish Ale.

In some parallel universe, haggis is probably even good for you — if you are a shepherd who regularly runs marathons with your sheep in the face of fierce winds blowing across the Scottish highlands.

But enough, I said. There’s a lesson in all this haggis. I thought long on it all, and I came to this: It’s easy to be hard on haggis. Haggis takes it on the chin. Haggis is the red-headed stepchild of ground offal. But all that notwithstanding, haggis is really not that bad. Most of all, you’ll never really know for yourself until you try it.

I registered another life lesson on fear, this time from haggis.

Haggis. Sounds like hell, looks like purgatory, and depending on how its cooked, it can taste like Heaven.

Daniel Noll plans a forthcoming novel about the around-the-world travels with his wife entitled “What Haggis Taught Me”

An Ode to Haggis

Finally, I promised to you, in the title, an ode. I’m not sure if you’ve heard that song about Alice. We once saw a rather terrible rendition on a ferry from Stockholm to Estonia many years ago; since then, I’ve never been able to fully purge the tune from my head. (But I digress). Anyway, I decided to rework the song a bit and came up with this. Perhaps you’ll want to listen to the original song to get an idea of the tune.

Eating Lotsa Haggis

Haggis called, and we got the word

It said: “I suppose you’ve heard
- about Haggis”

When I rushed to the counter,

And I looked inside,

And I could hardly believe my eyes -

As a big butcher rolled up

In royal haggis style

Oh, I don’t know why I’m heaving

Or where I’m gonna go,

I guess I’ve got my reasons
But you just don’t want to know,

‘Cos for forty-one years

I’ve been dreaming ’bout eating haggis.


Forty-one years just waiting for a chance,

To tell you how I feel,
and maybe get a second glance,

Now I’ve got to get used to not eating lotsa haggis

We didn’t know each other,

We didn’t share a park

I’d like to carve my initials,

Deep inside its bark,

Me and Haggis.

Now it comes through the door,

With its tower high

Just for a moment,
I caught its eye

As a big waiter pulled slowly

up with a haggis pie.

Oh, I don’t know why I’m heaving
Or where I’m gonna’ go,

I guess I’ve got my reasons,

But you just don’t want to know,

‘Cos for forty-one years

I’ve been dreaming ’bout eat-ing lotsa haggis.


Forty-one years just waiting for a chance,

To tell you how I feel,
and maybe get a second glance,

Now I gotta get used to not eating lotsa haggis…

And haggis called me back and asked how I felt,
 (urp)
And it said: “I know how to help

Get o-ver haggis”.

It said: “Now haggis is gone,

But we’re still here,

You know I’ve been waiting

For forty-one years…”

And then the tall waiter dissappeared…

I don’t know why he’s leaving,

Or where he’s gonna go,

I guess he’s got his reasons,

But I just don’t want to know,

‘Cos for forty-one years

I’ve been dreaming ’bout eating lotsa haggis.


Forty-one years just waiting for a chance,

To tell you how I feel,
and maybe get a second glance,

But I’ll never get used to not eat-ing lotsa haggis…

No I’ll never get used to not eat-ing lotsa haggis.
(cue the nifty early 70s guitar riff)

(note: For those of you who know the alternative Gompie version, please join with the chorus: “Haggis. Haggis. What the f**k is haggis?!”)

Disclosure: Our trip to Scotland and the Blogmanay campaign are brought to you by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and is sponsored by VisitScotland, ETAG, Edinburgh Festivals, Haggis Adventures and Skyscanner. The campaign bloggers were sourced and managed by iambassador. As always, all opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Japanese Food: From Tempura to Takoyakihttp://uncorneredmarket.com/japan-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/japan-food/#comments Mon, 24 Sep 2012 10:30:35 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=11830 By Daniel Noll

Japanese food, where clean eating meets culinary artistry. Where raw fish and pickled vegetables sit astride seaweed strands and tempura sculptures. Japan, the place where you can eat blowfish sashimi, octopus balls and cow rectum one evening, then follow it all up the next day with a 15-course meal that might qualify as one of […]

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By Daniel Noll

Traditional Japanese Breakfast
Starting the day right with a traditional Japanese breakfast.

Japanese food, where clean eating meets culinary artistry. Where raw fish and pickled vegetables sit astride seaweed strands and tempura sculptures. Japan, the place where you can eat blowfish sashimi, octopus balls and cow rectum one evening, then follow it all up the next day with a 15-course meal that might qualify as one of the truly greatest eating experiences of your life. Japan, the home of some of the world’s most exquisite beef, certainly its most exquisite fish.

Japan, where the dining experience is not only about the actual food consumed, but also the presentation, the design, the sheer beauty of what you’re eating. Japanese cuisine, where the food canvas employs color, where form truly follows function.

From the traditional to the modern, from the quick to the drawn-out, and from the haute to the street — with a few unusual (and necessary) ideas for limited budgets to help your yen go a bit further — this is our take on Japanese food.

Japanese Cuisine: A Taste of Ritual

In traditional Japanese cuisine, as in Japanese life, there are rules. Food rules. Meals are divided into bowls and dishes, which are then further subdivided, all in an effort to separate flavors so that they might not touch each other.

This is precision on a plate.

In Japan, aesthetic is critical, from the many porcelain plates and bowls from which you might take one meal, to the landscape of the tray upon which it is all served. There’s logic, there’s purpose in every facet of the dining experience, in each item in the meal. By design for design. Contrast this with other East Asian cuisines where large pots are shared from the middle of the table.

Japanese food is careful, that is, full of care. (We’re certain we horrified our share of hosts by sharing with each other tastes from our respective meals.)

Rice:

As in other Asian cuisine, rice is the guiding force, a requisite. In fact, the Japanese word for rice, gohan, is also the word for meal. In other words, you can’t have one without the other. Or perhaps in Japan, one is the other.

Pickled vegetables:

The Japanese seem to be able to pickle just about anything and everything that grows. And they make it all taste good. Japanese picked vegetables (tsukemono) are to be eaten on their own or in condiment fashion. Beware: portion sizes are usually inversely related to the strength of the pickle.

Their artistic arc begins with their shapes and colors accenting serving plates and bowls and ends curled astride one of your courses in complement. Perhaps best of all — and we are running on intuition here — pickled vegetables serve a function to the body in better absorbing or processing the food they are served with, balancing all the protein and rice, cleansing the palate between bites.

Pickled Vegetables, Japanese Breakfast
Japanese pickled vegetables. Small, but they pack a punch.

Soup:

Often a miso soup, but you may also be served another lighter broth or clear soup.

Meat/Fish:

Japan is an island, so it’s not surprising that fish is abundant and the go-to source of protein. Raw is the chosen method of preparation, but in multi-course meals you’ll find an occasional piece of steamed fish topped with a light sauce.

However, a perfectly marbled beef such as Kobe beef (or the new king, Hida beef) will be served beautifully raw with the expectation that you’ll cook it to taste on your own individual tabletop hibachi grill.

Take a look at this traditional meal at a restaurant in Takayama specializing in Hida beef. Can you find all the components?

Hida Beef, a Specialty of Takayama, Japan
How many components of a Japanese meal can you find?

Japanese Breakfast

You’ll find the same deliberate practice in a traditional Japanese breakfast as well. Your tray will contain many small plates, each with a different flavor and purpose. They all come together to provide a substantial – and protein rich – start to the day.

A Traditional Japanese Breakfast
A Japanese breakfast landscape.

Where to find a Japanese breakfast: The best place to try a traditional Japanese breakfast is to stay in a ryokan (Japanese inn). Our two favorite ryokans for breakfast: Oyado Iguchi in Takayama and Tagaoogi in Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji. Our favorite breakfast treat in all of Japan: hōba miso, grilled miso paste served atop fish on a dried magnolia leaf.

Bowing to the Alter of Raw Fish: Sushi and Sashimi

To get to the heart of raw fish, sushi and sashimi heaven, be sure to make a trip to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Sushi Breakfast at Tsukiji Market - Tokyo, Japan
Smiles and sashimi for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Many of you are probably familiar with the different styles of sushi – nigiri (slice of raw fish on top of rice), maki (rolls) and sashimi (slices of raw fish, no rice). We also became fans of sashimi don – a bowl of sushi rice covered in slabs of freshly cut sashimi.

Favoriate Sashimi Dons

After learning how Tokyo manages tons of fresh seafood each day, grab a sushi or sashimi don breakfast of champions at one of the tiny sushi restaurants in the market.

Tuna Sashimi and Rice (Don) - Kanazawa, Japan, Japan
Tuna sashimi on top of a bowl of rice (don).

Our favorite sashimi dons: We did not have time to wait in line for three hours at Sushi Dai (Daisha) but we did enjoy a great sashimi don at a small place a few doors down called BenTomi Sushi in Building #6.

Donburi (Rice Bowl) with Sashimi - Tokyo, Japan
Mixed sashimi don, breakfast of choice in Tokyo.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

Sushi purists may snub their nose at conveyor belt sushi or sushi trains, restaurants with moving belts of sushi plates where you serve yourself and pay at the end based on your pile of empty plates. However, we found that in Japan the quality of fish in these establishments could be exceptional, especially when you consider the price.

Conveyor Belt Sushi in Shinjuku - Tokyo, Japan
Sushi go-round.

Instead of being held prisoner by what was goes around the conveyor belt, you also have a choice of ordering sushi directly from the chef for the same price. Once we figured out this trick by watching locals in their routine, we rarely picked anything off the conveyor belt and ate exclusively from custom orders.

Often, we would be stuffed to the gills with sushi goodness for around $25-$30 for the two of us. In Japan terms, that’s considered a steal. And a win.

Favorite Conveyor Belt Sushi: Tototoriton Sushi Go-Round near Shinjuku station (south exit), Tokyo. Not only were most plates 130 Yen (under $2), but the custom order menu was 40+ options deep with sushi and sashimi options.

Blowfish Sashimi

Blowfish (fugu) is delicious, but it’s one of those delicacies that can kill you if it’s not properly prepared. Do your research to find a trusted fugu den (i.e., a restaurant that focuses only on fugu). We opted for a sashimi plate and found the fugu to be subtle flavor, slightly sweet, a tad numbing, with the consistency of very tender squid.

Blowfish (Fugu) Sashimi - Osaka, Japan
Thinly sliced tender fugu sashimi.

For even more fugu fun, be sure to get a glass of fugu sake – hot sake with fugu fins set on fire and infused into the brew. Fugu sake: intense, tasty, and also very fun to say ten times fast.

Where to find fugu sashimi: Osaka, they’ll even let you hold the fugu afterwards. Just beware that the fish might begin to blow up in your hands.

Kaiseki Dinner: Traditional Japanese Cuisine at its Best

We often sing the praises of cheap eating as we travel, but we are making an exception here for a traditional kaiseki meal. If you plan to splurge somewhere in Japan, consider doing it for this. Our kaiseki meal at a ryokan near Mount Fuji was one of the most memorable and unique meals of our lives.

Kaiseki is a multi-course (6-15 courses) traditional dinner, served in the manner of samurai (we’re not kidding). But it is more than just a meal, it’s an entire cultural experience. Each course is tiny, but delicately prepared and served in bowls and dishes that are well-suited to the food. And no two dishes will be the same; everything has a purpose. The presentation and service is an unforgettable experience, sheer joy.

Kaiseki Ryori, Traditional Japanese Meal
The start of our kaiseki dinner, the first of many dishes.

The courses of a kaiseki meal will change based on the seasons and what is fresh, but they’ll often represent all the different styles of cooking – raw, boiled, grilled, and steamed. The experience will pull influence from the mountains to the sea. There’s a pace that ensures that the meal moves along, but it’s slow enough as to enable the full appreciation of presentation, design, and flavor.

Recommended Kaiseki Dinner: Tagaoogi Ryokan at Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji. Just amazing, from the quality of the food to the presentation and service.

Japanese Cheap Eats

It is true that the words cheap and Japan don’t often go together, but there are thankfully a few tasty, healthy Japanese options that are easier on the wallet.

Okonomiyaki

Hiroshima Okinomiyaki - Japan
Hiroshima okonomiyaki in the making.

A friend living in Japan told us the style of okonomiyaki is a reflection of the city where it is served. Some places are more orderly with straight streets, others are messy with curved roads. You can find this personality in the local okonomiyaki.

Okonomiyaki, roughly, is a savory pancake stuffed with sliced vegetables, seafood and other bits. Although its roots go back centuries, its popularity dates from the days of U.S. troops and post-WWII deliveries to Japan of wheat flour (used in the pancake batter). Usually, okonomiyaki is cooked on a big griddle or at your table in a cook-your-own style. Top with hanakatsuo — dried, fermented, and outrageously thin bacony looking smoked bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes that curl like mad when you place them atop hot food.

Trust us, it tastes much better than the description makes it sound. It’s usually an inexpensive meal as well, especially if two people can share one portion.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki:

Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki - Japan
Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki

This was the first okonomiyki we enjoyed, and it was massive. Noodles (choice of soba or udon), grated vegetables and seafood are served on top of a thin fried pancake. Usually it is topped with a sweet Worcestershire style sauce and topped with mayonnaise.

Where to get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki: Just near the Hiroshima train station is the main street Johoku Dori. If you walk past the Post Office you’ll find this place on the right side in a brick building. All locals, lots of fun.

Osaka-style Okonomiyaki:

Okonomiyaki, Osaka Style - Japan
Okonomiyaki, Osaka Style

In contrast to Hiroshima’s signature okonomiyaki, Osaka okonomiyaki does not include any noodles, its veggies are more finely chopped, and the whole package is more tidy.

Where to get Osaka-style okonomiyaki: There are lots of places along Dōtonbori Street in Osaka that specialize in okonomiyaki. If you ask nicely, they’ll even draw Hello Kitty on top in mayonnaise.

Tokyo style, okonomiyaki:

Monjayaki Cooking - Tokyo, Japan
Monjayaki in the making.

Officially known as monjayaki, all the ingredients are blended into the batter so that it is all cooked together, almost like a pancake-omelette. Our server came to the rescue when he realized we had no idea what we were doing on our grill and piled the cut cabbage and other goodies on the outside and while much of the liquid batter cooked on the inside. Then you mash the whole thing together with little metal scrapters. Rather messy, not very orderly, but really satisfying.

Where to get monjayaki in Tokyo: Just at the main crossing at Shibuya station in Tokyo, look up to find this sign across the street and left from the metro. You’ll have your choice of monjayaki or okonomiyaki that you cook yourself at your table. Lots of fun, terrifically social and inexpensive.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki on Streets of Osaka, Japan
Takoyaki from the streets of Osaka.

Takoyaki, you say? Hot octopus and herbed dough balls. All part of the experience: watching takoyaki masters quickly turn their takoyaki balls in something that looks like a cupcake pan with long toothpicks to that they are cooked evenly on all sides. Takoyaki is often topped with a sweet sauce, oregano, and ample helpings of hanakatsuo.

Where to get takoyaki:

  • Nishiki Market, Kyoto: There’s a bustling stand in the covered indoor market serving up piping hot takoyaki for a great price. Fun atmosphere with lots of students hanging around.
  • Dōtonbori Street, Osaka: Several vendors sell takoyaki fresh from the grill along this busy street.

Izakaya restaurants

Izakaya are technically known as drinking restaurants, but there’s usually a large menu of dumplings, salads, fried chicken and other snack bits to nosh as you drink your beer. Izakaya sometimes even offer karaoke so you can sing off all the calories. If you look around, you can find some good deals at Izakaya restaurants with dishes that run $3-$5.

Japanese Curry

Japanese Curry - Kyoto, Japan
Mixed seafood Japanese curry from Coco Ichibanya.

Although we’ve heard that Japanese curry originated with the British, it’s nothing at all like a British or Indian curry. The best way to describe Japanese curry sauce: brown. It’s a smooth sweet and savory gravy. Although not on par with Indian or other curries, it can be a nice food break from typical Japanese fare, and it’s usually pretty inexpensive.

Where to get Japanese curry: Most major cities feature inexpensive curry restaurants. We tried Coco Ichibanya in Kyoto and enjoyed a large plate of mixed seafood curry for about $10.

Japanese Soups

Ramen Soup at Tenkaippin Restaurant - Kyoto, Japan
Ramen Soup at Tenkaippin Restaurant

There are quite a few restaurants specializing in soups. Often you can choose your noodle (thick udon or the thinner soba), style of broth and the meat or vegetable inside.

Where to get Japanese soups: Although a chain restaurant, Tenkaippin (or Tenka Ippin) serves a formidable bowl. Ippudo is another popular and apparently reliable soup chain.

Ootaya Restaurant

Ootoya is actually a chain restaurant, but one that features high quality food at very reasonable prices (e.g., around $8-10). A great option when you want a hearty, good-looking meal without breaking the bank. You can find Ootaya restaurants all around Tokyo, especially in and around the business disticts. We went to the one in the Subaru building in Shinjuku.

Regional and other Favorite Japanese Eats

Conger Eel, Miyajima

Anago Meshi (Conger Eel) on Rice - Miyajimaguchi, Japan
Anago meshi on top of a bowl of rice.

Much of the eel that you’ll find in Japan is unagi, meaning freshwater eel. But in the Miyajima and Hiroshima area, the eel of choice is anago, or saltwater eel. It’s grilled slightly and then topped with a sweet sauce. We ate our anago as a rice bowl (don) just near the train station in Miyajimaguchi. Standard price is around $25-$30 per bowl.

Grilled Oysters — Miyajima

Grilled Oysters - Miyajima, Japan
Grilling oysters is a hot business on Miyajima.

You would think that with all the raw food Japanese eat they’d throw oysters into the raw eating basket. But they don’t, at least during certain times of the year when water temperatures are too high. So during the time of our visit in May, oyster vendors on Miyajima island grilled their oysters. While the oysters were not petite, they were tasty and rich, massive guys, a perfect complement to a good dry sake.

Tempura

Tempura Cooked up at Tsunahachi Restaurant - Tokyo, Japan
Serving up freshly fried tempura at Tsunahachi in Tokyo.

Tempura always struck us as an odd Japanese food — it is fried, whereas most Japanese food is light on oil. Dig into the history of tempura and you’ll find out why: thank the Portugese influence for tempura in Japan.

While tempura is often done badly – meaning overly fried or not using fresh oils – there is a beauty to it when done well. The exterior of excellent tempura is just slightly crunchy, protecting the tenderly cooked interior. And there’s no better way to appreciate the skill behind perfectly prepared tempura than by eating at a bar where you can watch tempura masters at work.

Where to eat tempura in Tokyo: We went for the lunch menu at Tsunahachi Restaurant in Shinjuku ($15-$30). The cheapest lunch menu available, while missing some of the special seafood bits, is an excellent value. Their tempura is exceptionally high quality. We also enjoyed sitting at the bar watching the chefs do their magic. This restaurant will give you eating and dipping instructions in English to be sure you eat everything correctly. Helpful, cute and delightfully Japanese.

Hida Beef

Many people have heard of Kobe beef, but few have heard of Hida beef. This is the new top beef in Japan according to the latest food competitions. The meat is marbled with fat, making it melt in your mouth when you grill it. Not inexpensive at $25-$30 for a set meal, but worth trying. Since the town of Hida is just north, Takayama is full of restaurants specializing in Hida beef.

Hida Beef on the Grill - Takayama, Japan
Chunks of marbled Hida beef ready to go on the grill.

Drinks and Desserts

Yatsuhashi Kyoto Sweets - Japan
Yatsuhashi sweets with bean paste filling in Kyoto

We had no idea that Japanese people had such a sweet tooth, but if you look around the basement food floor of any department store you will be amazed by the array and selection of sweets. Many are made with rice flour doughs and bean paste or other bits of regional fillings. The sweets that take the cake (and we almost made ourselves sick on all the free samples in Kyoto) were the Yatsuhashi sweets — rice flour dough pillows tucked with various sweet fillings.

Sake:

Sake Tasting in Takayama, Japan
Free sake tasting in Takayama. Dangerous in the middle of the afternoon…

Made from fermented rice, sake is a traditional Japanese alcohol that pairs nicely with sushi, grilled oysters and other bits of traditional Japanese fare. Obviously, not all sake is created equal, so if your first experience is not great, don’t dispair. To get a sense of the range of sake available, taste and sample as much sake as you can. If you find yourself in Takayama, be sure to take part in free sake tasting in the old town near Sanmachi (or Kamisannomachi). Look for the sugidama (large cedar balls) hanging outside, indicating that sake is brewed and served inside. The best tastings include an array of sake, and also indicate which sake is best served cold or warm.

Green tea:

We had never really been big fans of green tea prior to visiting Japan. Much of what is passed off as green tea in the West, can be less than noteworthy, especially in the bottled iced tea arena where tastes border on the syrupy and tea-free.

In Japan, however green tea is everywhere, and it is often exceptionally good. There is a smooth, smoky flavor that is to be appreciated without any sugar or additives. Take the opportunity to attend a Japanese tea ceremony and you’ll appreciate the culture behind tea drinking even more.

Japanese Tea Ceremony - Kyoto, Japan
Water preparation in a Japanese tea ceremony, Kyoto.

A note for coffee drinkers: Knowing that Japan is mainly a tea-drinking society, we were surprised by the prevalence of coffee shops and espresso machines. Getting your coffee fix is possible, however, but it is not cheap (i.e., $4-7 at a Starbucks or similar type of café).

By no means is this an extensive Japanese food guide, but it should help you navigate the Japanese food landscape and offer a few options for budget eating in Japan.

Japan: eat it, live it, enjoy it — and share with us your favorite features and dishes in Japanese cuisine.

いただきます Itadakimasu!

Environmental note – BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks): Most restaurants in Japan will provide you with disposable wooden chopsticks. Consider bringing a pair of your own portable / foldable chopsticks or just regular chopsticks for your Japan travels to avoid all that wooden chopstick waste.

Disclosure: Our Discover Japan tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Some, but not all, eating expenses, were covered. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ Discover Japan Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

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Hooray World Cuisine: 10 Fabulous Feasts from Around the World for Under $2.00http://uncorneredmarket.com/ten-fabulous-feasts-under-two-dollars/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/ten-fabulous-feasts-under-two-dollars/#comments Thu, 16 Aug 2012 14:31:16 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=11691 By Daniel Noll

Two bones. Two bucks. Gimme two dollars and I can eat like a king. I can eat like a queen. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. For all the great food that we eat and food porn we post across Facebook, Twitter, and our website, the prevailing wisdom might be that we’re […]

The post Hooray World Cuisine: 10 Fabulous Feasts from Around the World for Under $2.00 appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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By Daniel Noll

Burmese Food, Streetside Soup - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
A streetside feast in Yangon, Burma (Myanmar).

Two bones. Two bucks. Gimme two dollars and I can eat like a king. I can eat like a queen. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

For all the great food that we eat and food porn we post across Facebook, Twitter, and our website, the prevailing wisdom might be that we’re rolling in the big bucks. Alas, no. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned while traveling the world: culinary delight need not be achieved on the back of an empty wallet.

Take yesterday, perfect example. We’re in Berlin, it’s sunny and we’re in the mood for lunch fresh and cheap. We take a stroll down the street to Turkish pizza corner and in minutes are noshing on hot Turkish pizzas tucked with salad and topped with sumac and crushed red pepper. The cost of maintaining this love affair: €1.50 ($1.85) per pizza.

This got us to thinking: what other memorable meals from around the world run under the $2.00 mark? Maybe you’re thinking, “Only a handful, at most.” Not quite. Curating this list turned out to be trickier than expected.

Now let’s a take a walk down our $2.00 culinary memory lane.

10 Favorite Eats from Around the World for Under $2

1. Thai seafood curry: Bangkok, Thailand

Streetside Squid Red Curry - Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok red squid curry…for about $1

“Red curry chock full of squid and shrimp for $1.00…you’re lying!” Nope, check the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Sure, the price may go up and down a bit depending on the weakness of the dollar, but we still have a ways to go before it tops $2.00. Cost: 30-60 BHT/$1 – $2

More reading: Bangkok 15 Course Street Meal and For the Love of Thai Food

2. 10 Tacos: San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

Street Food Tacos in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico
Street Tacos, San Cristobal de las Casas. $0.16 a pop.

Have you ever asked for the bill and thought maybe you’d misheard, maybe a zero was missing? The taco stand just outside of Santo Domingo Church in San Cristobal de las Casas featured this pleasant misunderstanding. The meat was good (as in no mystery bits), the spice combination was right on, and even the hot sauces were freshly made and excellent. And the price? 2 pesos or $0.16 a taco. True, they are a bit on the small side, but south of $2 will get you your fill.Cost: 2 pesos/$0.16 per meat taco, hot sauce=free

3. Chapati and curries: Mandalay, Burma/Myanmar

Stack of Chapatis - Mandalay, Burma
Chapatis and curry in Mandalay, Burma.

On the corner of 82nd and 27th Streets in Mandalay, Myanmar you’ll find a chapati and curry factory in action as evening comes around. Hordes of people gather around to eat Myanmar-style Indian goodness – stacks of chapati flatbread and lentil, vegetable and lamb curries. Cost: $1 for two curries and four chapatis.
More reading: No More Bats and Bicycle Chickens: The Better Side of Burmese Cuisine

4. Mysore Masala Dosa: Kollam (Kerala, India)

Possibly the Best Masala Dosa - Kollam, India
Mysore masala dosa in Kollam, Kerala.

Just about everything we’d eaten in India fell into the under $2 range so it’s difficult to choose just one entry for this list. But we must, so we will. And our choice: the amazing dosa.

We quickly became dosa fanatics while traveling southern India. Dosas (dosai) became our breakfast of choice, our comfort food. But perhaps the best dosa ever on all of our travels in India came from a little hole-in-the-wall place in the town of Kollum in the Indian state of Kerala. There, dosa transcendence. Maybe it was the spice blend (the masala) mixed with potato, maybe it was the sambar and coconut chutneys. Any way you grab it and tuck it (all eaten with the hands), it still makes our mouths water. Seek it out at Sree Suprabatham Restaurant in Kollam, India. Cost: 40 rupees/$1
More reading: South Indian Food: A Few Favorites

5. Chinese Dumplings: Kaili (Guizhou Province, China)

Fried Dumplings at Street Restaurant - Kaili, China
Beautiful, hand-made dumplings in Kaili.

After taking an overnight train that deposited us at the Kaili train station at 5:30 AM, we were exhausted and starving. Gathering our bearings, we found a mother and daughter team making dumplings (jiaozi) by hand at a tiny shop about the width of a doorway. We popped in and ordered a tray of perfectly steamed minced meat and herb-stuffed dumplings. Then we ordered a plate of fried dumplings. And we returned every day for the next few days to try everything in the house. These dumplings were easily among the the best we eaten in all of China, if not the best — and we ate a lot of dumplings.Cost: $0.80 for a tray of 8 steamed or fried dumplings
More reading: Top 10 Chinese Dumplings and Chinese Food Series (6 parts)

6. Khachapuri: Tbilisi (Georgia)

Khachapuri - Mtskheta, Georgia
Khachapuri, the ultimate in comfort food.

Still shocked looks when we call out Georgian food as one of our favorite cuisines. Some of Georgian cuisine’s signature dishes define comfort food, and among our favorites in the Georgian snack arsenal, khachapuri – a bread stuffed with tangy Georgian cheese that just oozes out with taste and tang.Cost: $0.80-$2, depending upon the size.
More reading: Georgian Food Round Up

7. Empanadas: Salta Region, Argentina

A Melange of Empanadas -  Cafayate, Argentina
Cafayate empanadas, the best in Argentina.

In much of South America, empanadas are the go-to, especially when traveling on-the-go and on the cheap in Argentina. But the empanadas in Argentina’s Salta region take the whole stuffed dough pocket thing to a whole new level. In these parts, there was something about the slightly flaky dough that was notches above repurposed pizza crust you might get elsewhere in Argentina. Perhaps most importantly, folks in Salta actually enjoy spice, so hot sauces were plentiful everywhere we went. One of our favorite places: La Casa de las Empanadas in Cafayate. They over a dozen varieties of empanada in and watch the women in the back roll the dough fresh for over a dozen varieties.Cost: 3 pesos/$0.60 per empanada
More reading: Argentine Food: Steak, Empanadas, Pizza, Pasta, Repeat and Wine Tasting in Cafayate, Argentina

8. Street pho: Hanoi, Vietnam

Hearty Bowl of Pho in Prague's Vietnamese Market
A steamy bowl of Pho Bo. Go good.

Who would have thought that sitting on tiny kingergarten-sized plastic stools slurping pho bo, Vietnamese beef soup, in Vietnamese winter could be so satisfying? We do. Fresh herbs thrown on top of steaming long-cooked broth create a steam bath of savory goodness. It’s all culinary balance, from the savory beef broth to the sweets of star anise and Asian basil.Cost: $1 – $1.50
More reading: A Taste of Hanoi

9. Plov, Taskhent (Uzbekistan)

Simmering Plov (Rice Dish) - Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Plov simmering on the streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

In Central Asia, food is not a strong point, but we did grow to love plov — rice mixed with vegetables, meat and spices. Of all the plov we sampled, Uzbekistan featured the best in the region. Our favorite came from Flamingo, a simple little restaurant in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Their plov featured carrots, peppers, raisins, chick peas, and spices all long-simmered together with rice and beef/lamb. Cost: $1/plate
More reading: Central Asian Food: The Good, The Bad, The Inedible and Golden Camel Awards, Part 1: Food and Markets

10. Turkish Pizza (lahmacun),Berlin (Germany)

Lahmacun (aka, Turkish Pizza) in the Kreuzberg Area of Berlin
Lahmacun (Turkish pizza) topped with salad. So fresh and delicious.

Let’s close with the inspiration for this post, not least of all because we found it in Europe, a continent not often thought of as the home of low cost, high quality eating. We take almost every visitor who comes to Berlin to Tadim at Kottbusser Tor because it really does serve an almost perfect Turkish Pizza (lahmacun) – freshly rolled out flat bread dough covered with a thin layer of herbed and lightly spiced minced meat gets cooked in the oven just so. The resulting dough is topped with freshly cut lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and parsley, then rolled and tucked. Cost: €1.50/$1.85 (if you want sauces, price goes up to €1.70/$2.10)
More reading: Cheap Berlin Eats Under €5 and Berlin Food: Favorite Neighborhood Meals Under €10

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OK, I’m hungry,” you’re thinking. “But so what?

The so what is this. The key to tasty meals, human connections and rich experiences: don’t be shy, be curious, have a nose for the fresh, be guided by the local. And whatever you do, don’t break the bank.

The cover your culinary ass caveat: Prices are accurate at the time of consumption. Happy eating!

What have been some of your most memorable meals in the under $2 category?

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Berlin Food: Favorite Neighborhood Meals Under €10http://uncorneredmarket.com/berlin-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/berlin-food/#comments Mon, 05 Mar 2012 04:30:55 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=10635 By Daniel Noll

In time for the ITB Berlin travel conference this week, we share some of our favorite Berlin restaurants and dishes that fall into the category of high value. The goal isn’t just to eat well and inexpensively, but to use Berlin food exploration as a compass to get out and enjoy the city’s fabulous neighborhoods […]

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By Daniel Noll

Cheese Spätzle in Berlin
Time to eat the spätzle, Berlin.

In time for the ITB Berlin travel conference this week, we share some of our favorite Berlin restaurants and dishes that fall into the category of high value. The goal isn’t just to eat well and inexpensively, but to use Berlin food exploration as a compass to get out and enjoy the city’s fabulous neighborhoods along the way.

In the first of our Berlin cheap eats installments, most of our recommendations were under €5 and located in Kreuzberg, where we happened to be living at the time. During our last visit we stayed in Neukölln, but several times a week we cycled across the city, hither and yon, lunch-seeking in the €5-€10 range. This is the result of our food quest. You’ll find some of the usual suspects and a suggestion or two a little off-path. A big thanks to all of our Berlin peeps — you know who you are — for the tips.

Let’s dig in!

Berlin eating at around €5

Azzam

Msabaha (Hummus Variety) at Azzam Restaurant - Neukölln, Berlin
Beautiful bowl of musabbaha at Azzam.

This Lebanese-Syrian hole-in-the-wall became a favorite eating spot of ours in Berlin. Some of the highest quality food for the money in the city. Two people can easily stuff themselves with delicious treats for under €5. Our suggestions include: Manakeesh flatbread (€1) covered in za’atar (a spice blend including thyme and sesame seeds) or cheese with a subtle fragrance of nutmeg; Musabaha (a warm whole chickpea dip) or hummus for €3.50, falafel plate (€3.50), fatteh at €4.50. Everything comes with a boat of fresh vegetables, olives, and herbs plus a bag of pita bread.
Address: Azzam, Sonnenallee 54 (Neukölln)

Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab

Berlin's Urban Food Log at Mustafa's - Kreuzberg, Berlin
Audrey’s really enjoying her Mustafa’s gemüse kebab

You’ll know you’re close when you spot the long line snaking down the street. Not your typical kebab – a spindle of chicken and roasted vegetables is carved up and served with a fabulous mélange of potatoes, sweet potatoes, salad, cheese and sauce. If you’re vegetarian, you can also go for the pure veg option. We usually opted for the durum doner (with chicken) for €3.90 which more than fed the two of us.
Address: Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebab, Mehringdamm 32 (Kreuzberg)

Wok Show

Chinese Dumplings at Wok Show - Prenzlauerberg, Berlin
Wok show dumplings in Berlin.

When a Chinese friend (thanks, Yuhang!) recommends a Chinese dumpling place, we take note. When we arrived at Wok Show for a late lunch, mother and daughter were stuffing and folding away. Select from about a dozen dumpling varieties. An order of 20 homemade and fabulously fresh dumplings costs €4.50-€6.50. Temporarily transported us to China and our favorite dumpling experiences there.
Address: Wok Show, Greifenhagener Straße 31 (Prenzlauer Berg)

W Imbiss

Avocado Naan Pizza - Mitte, Berlin
Naan pizza…yum!

Compliments to Henrik of Berlin food rally fame for introducing us to this eatery. This became another favorite spot for its “naan pizzas” — crispy naan crusts topped with vegetarian freshness including combinations of artichokes, guacamole, rucola, sundried tomatoes, and creamed forest mushrooms (€6 and up, big enough to feed two). For a little off-pizza variety, check out the hearty black bean quesadilla (€5).
Address: W Imbiss, Kastanienallee 49 (Mitte)

Heno Heno

Gyu-Don at Heno Heno - Charlottenburg, Berlin
Gyūdon (beef bowl with rice) at Heno Heno.

Authentic Japanese food in this tiny Charlottenberg eatery. Bowls of udon soup and gyūdon (beef bowl with rice) for around €5. Happy stomach, Heno Heno.
Address: Heno Heno, Kantstraße 65 (Charlottenberg)

Toros

Friendly Cook at Toros on Oranienplatz - Kreuzberg, Berlin
Simmering tantuni at Toros in Kreuzberg.

This friendly family-run Turkish food stand on the corner of the park at Oranienplatz specializes in tantuni, an Anatolian-style slow-cooked spiced beef. The durum and bread (which blows the mind after they rub it in the sauce and on the grill) tantuni sandwiches are both delicious and cheap at €2-€3. Don’t go too late at night; once the homemade flatbread (durum) sells out for the day, that’s it.
Address: Toros, Oranienplatz 2 (Kreuzberg)

Dong Xuan Center

Pho Bo (Beef Vietnamese Soup) - Lichtenberg, Berlin

For something a little further afield, check out the Vietnamese market district in Lichtenberg and order yourself a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese soup just about everyone these days has learned to love. A standup bowl of pho bo tai (beef noodle) will run about €6. The bowl above is from the restaurant first on the left from the main artery (with outdoor seating) as you enter the complex.
Address: Herzenbergstrasse 128 (Lichtenberg)

Kuchen Kaiser

If you’re in the mood for hearty traditional German food, make your way over to Kreuzberg to this cute German eatery. Prices are more in the €7-€10 range, but portions are large and can often feed two people. Our favorites include the spaetzle covered with bergkäse and bacon, beef gulash and leberkäse. Rumor has it that they do good cakes and strudels, although we’ve never had the room to get there. Try also the Kreuzberger Molle, a pilsner style beer brewed locally. Highly addictive stuff.
Address: Kuchen Kaiser, Oranienplatz 11-13 (Kreuzberg)

For the Love of Berlin Lunch Menus

In the world of value eating (i.e., the best quality food for your money), it’s hard to beat the lunch menu. Even some high end restaurants will offer quality dishes on a lunch menu for a fraction of the cost of their dinner menu. Here are a few of our favorite Berlin lunch menus for around €5.

Blisse 14

Lunch at Blisse14 - Wilmersdorf, Berlin
A typical €5 Blisse Lunch.

This social enterprise supports people with disabilities and offers up creative and fun two-course lunches for €5 like chicken, mushrooms, peas, cherry tomato and mint over rice with a starter of tandoori-coconut soup. Menus change every week. It’s a bit out of the way in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood, but worth a cycle or metro ride over. Special thanks to Nicole at Visit Berlin for this tip, as we’d never have found this place without it.
Address: Blisse 14, Blissestraße 14 (Wilmersdorf)

Lavanderia Vecchia

An over-the-top cute Italian restaurant decked out in the theme of mama’s laundry. Open kitchen. The daily menu revolves around the whim of the chef and what happens to be fresh. For lunch, the single-course menu runs from €4.50 with a two-course meal setting you back €8. Go early as it fills up quickly. If you want to splurge for a nice dinner, consider Lavenderia Vecchia’s 8-course €39 evening menu.
Address: Lavanderia Vecchia, Flughafenstr. 46 (back courtyard), Neukölln

Vino e Libri

Spaghetti with Mussels - Mitte, Berlin
Lunch menu at Vino e Libri, Berlin.

Bring a book, get a book, and enjoy with a glass of wine. We first went here in the evening as part of our Berlin food rally, but noticed the inexpensive lunch menu and decided to return. The lunch menu changes regularly and starts at €5.50 for dishes like the spaghetti with mussels pictured above. Otherwise, the standard menu starts at €10 for pastas (e.g., homemade pumpkin ravioli) and heads up and over €20 for meat and seafood mains.
Address: Vino e Libri, Torstrasse 89, Mitte

Chen Che Teehaus

Chen Che Vietnamese Taster Menu - Mitte, Berlin
Chen Che Teehaus Lunch Sampler

If you are looking for real Vietnamese food in Berlin, this ought to be one of your first stops. The décor is also fun and beautifully thought out. Lunch menus run €6.50-€8, with taster menus running a bit more. Chen Che also features an extensive tea selection for aficionados.
Address: Chen Che Teehaus, Rosenthaler Str. 13, Mitte

Pizza in Berlin

Papà Pane di Sorrento

Fantastic Pizza at Papa Pane in Mitte, Berlin
Pizza done right at Pappa Pane in Mitte.

If you like Napoli style pizza, this place has your number. Particularly when cherry tomatoes are in season, the sauce is spot on. You’ll speak more Italian here than German. Lunch specials run around €6 with specialty pizzas (our favorite is the Papà Pane — thin crust, chunks of buffalo mozzarella, pomodorini, and big basil leaves) for €7-€9. House wine is decently priced at €4 a half liter.
Address: Papà Pane, Ackerstraße 23 (Mitte)

Gasthaus Figl

Tirol Pizza at Gasthaus Figl - Neukölln, Berlin
Tirol Pizza at Gasthaus Figl

For thin crust traditional Italian and Tyrolian style pizza with bergkäse (German mountain cheese) and speck, head to Gasthaus Figl. Fun atmosphere, pleasant outdoor garden. A short but decent selection of beers on tap. Go early or make a reservation, as Figl fills up quickly.
Address: Gasthaus Figl, Urbanstrasse 47 (Kreuzberg)

Breakfast and Brunch

A.Horn

Breakfast Plate at A.Horn in Kreuzberg, Berlin
Standard mixed plate breakfast at A.Horn.

After Kotti at Kottbusser Tor stopped serving breakfast, it was time to find somewhere new. A.Horn is it, our breakfast and brunch favorite near the canal. Bagels are pretty good, as is the coffee. But it’s the mixed plate flush with tasty jams, fruit, cheese and meat that takes the prize. And they serve a decent weissbier — this and the outdoor setting offer the perfect excuse to drink beer for breakfast.
Address: A.Horn, Carl-Herz-Ufer 9 (Kreuzberg)

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Our question to you, dear Berlin food mavens: What did we miss?

—-

We’ve taken all our Berlin tips — sites, neighborhoods and cheap eats — and put them into one nifty pdf guide! Click on the image to buy and download!
Berlin guide

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Crete Food: An Overviewhttp://uncorneredmarket.com/crete-food/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/crete-food/#comments Mon, 20 Feb 2012 21:36:36 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=10469 By Audrey Scott

You smell the stink, but you hear the scent! – Viki, one of our guides on the Greek island of Crete, captures the philosophical essence of Cretan cuisine. While I appreciate that the traditional Cretan diet is known as being one of the healthiest in the world, every time I look at our food photos […]

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By Audrey Scott

Cretan Olives, Artichokes and Olive Oil - Agreco Farm, Crete
Cretan Olives, Artichokes and Olive Oil

You smell the stink, but you hear the scent!

– Viki, one of our guides on the Greek island of Crete, captures the philosophical essence of Cretan cuisine.

While I appreciate that the traditional Cretan diet is known as being one of the healthiest in the world, every time I look at our food photos from Crete I think back to our experience: “Damn. That was just awesome food.

Cretan cuisine is one of foundation, not of complicated sauces. Its strength lies in the quality and freshness of its ingredients, the use of wild herbs and greens, and purity of taste. And not to be forgotten, the copious use of olive oil, Crete’s liquid gold.

We’ll touch on the ingredients and philosophy of Cretan food before diving into some of our favorite appetizers and sides, mains, desserts and drinks — and where we consumed them. The goal: so you don’t come to Crete looking only for gyros and souvlaki.

Let’s dig in!

Cretan Food: Ingredients, Approach and Philosophy

When it comes to Cretan food, you could say it features the three F’s: freshness, fragrance and family.

Wild Herbs and Greens

As we drove from Heraklion, the provincial capital of Crete, civilization quickly yielded to nature. “Pull over here,” Viki implored us as we made our way into the hills. We did.

She hopped out of the car and scampered off the side of the road, and returned a minute later with armfuls of wild sage, oregano, thyme and marjoram. The car filled instantly with fresh and fragrance. It was out of this world.

She also pointed to several plants growing nearby: “You can pick those for wild salads. We have over thirty kinds of wild greens in our mountains.”

The Cretan countryside smells of wild herbs and flowers. Oregano is perhaps the most common herb used, but sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, basil (different than Italian basil), fennel, and dill also play a prominent role. On Crete, you’ll find them used on salads, in dishes and also in beautiful, cleansing blends of herbal tea.

Cretan Vegetables and Fruits

One woman joked with us: “If you think this tomato is good, you should have tasted one from when I was a kid. Pure gold.”

Maybe so, but we were still impressed by the selection of local produce in the markets. Every time we went to a restaurant we learned that the food came from a nearby farm or village. And it tasted that way, too.

From pomegranates to peppers, Cretan produce is all about the crisp, the fresh, the retained flavor.

Piles of Peppers at Heraklion Market - Crete, Greece
Piles of Peppers at Heraklion Market

Olive Oil

Olive oil is the most important ingredient in Cretan cuisine. Virtually everything has a spoonful (or two or three) of olive oil thrown on top. Some Cretan dishes even swim in the golden liquid, only to their benefit. Savory pastries are fried in olive oil. Try french fries in olive oil and you’ll be spoiled.

Crete features over 1.5 million olive trees. If you are born on Crete, it seems like a birthright that you own at least a few.

Olives Ripe for Picking - Crete, Greece
Olives ripe for the picking.

To place the importance of olive oil to the Cretan diet in perspective, consider that average olive oil consumption in Germany and the United States runs about 0.5 liters/person annually. In Crete, it’s 25 liters per person per year. The best and healthiest olive oil, natural to Crete, has acidity levels of under 1, with 0.3-0.6 being the ideal.

Crete Eating: Family Style

Before jumping into our favorite eating experiences on Crete, a note on the local style of eating. Family style is the name of the game: everyone shares.

Our guide, Ioanna, chuckled at us before we figured this out. As we served salad to our plates from the community bowl, she observed as a Cretan might, “You are strange. Just use your fork and eat right out of the bowl.”

Agreed. Community eating binds us, and it just might make meals taste that much better.

Getting Started: Cretan Appetizers and Sides

Dakos: A very typical Cretan dish. Rusks, a traditional dried bread that is baked several times and kept for months, is moistened in a bit of water, and topped with grated tomato, olive oil, cheese and oregano. Crunchy, light and full of flavor, it makes a perfect snack.

Dakos (dried bread topped with tomatoes) at Lunch - Crete, Greece
Dakos to snack on.

Marinated and pickled vegetables: Artichokes, wild onion bulbs, black and green olives are just the beginning of a mountain of marinated appetizer goodies that you’ll find on Crete. If small plate eating is your thing, this is where experience begins.

Cretan Food at Agreco Farm - Rethymnon, Crete
Artichokes, Olives and Olive Oil on Crete

Fasolakia: Fresh beans cooked with a little crushed tomato and olive oil. The simplicity of this dish belies its taste and reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.

Fasolakia (Beans and Tomatoes) - Crete
Fasolakia (Beans and Tomatoes) – Crete

Dolmades: Stuffed grape leaves, usually with a rice, herb and ground meat mixture. This dish is not specific to Crete; it’s popular throughout this side of the Mediterranean.

Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves) - Crete, Greece
Dolmades (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Crete cheese: There’s certainly no shortage of cheese on Crete. Among the main varieties you’ll find: anthotiros, a sheep and goat cheese that’s mild and soft when it’s fresh and salty and earthy when hard; kefalotiri, a firm sheep or goat cheese, and mizithra, the typical fresh cheese of Crete made from sheep’s milk (and when made from goat’s milk it’s called katsikithia).

Graviera, the typical hard cheese of Crete is usually made with sheep’s milk. Although the name sounds suspiciously like gruyere, graviera is nothing like its Swiss sister namesake. Also delicious when fried and served hot.

The best introduction to Cretan cheese is a walk through the market (preferably with some knowledgeable locals) and sampling visits to a handful of cheese stands. We did our Cretan cheese deep dive at the Atsalenio Wednesday market in Heraklion.

Sarikopitakia: Sheep’s cheese-filled pastries fried in olive oil. Named after the iconic traditional scarf, of the same shape, worn by the men of West Crete. We ate these fresh at the women’s cooperative of Idaia Gi in the mountainous village of Gergeri (on the way to Phaestos).

Fresh Sarikopitakia (Cheese-Stuffed Pastries) - Crete, Greece
Fresh Sarikopitakia

Greek yogurt: Decadently rich and creamy, this stuff is to die for. The local Cretan yogurt variety is made with sheep’s milk instead of cow’s milk. Top it with honey, nuts, and some fruit for one of the most beautiful (and healthiest) breakfasts on the planet.

Greek Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts - Agreco Farm, Crete
“Greek Yogurt with Honey and Walnuts

Kalitsounia Kritis: A pastry crust stuffed with a slightly sweet Cretan cheese mixture (often including mizithra). Their sweetness implies dessert, but they are also served as appetizers.

Kalitsounia Kritis - Agreco Farm, Crete
Kalitsounia Kritis

Where to eat it: For a vast spread of Cretan appetizers and nibbles, head to Agreco Farm outside Rethymno. Many of the appetizers you see above were devoured there. It’s an organic farm with a nice view of the coast; food is fresh and top notch. Also serves a full Cretan feast for dinner.

Something More Substantial: Cretan Main Dishes

Snails with Cracked Wheat (Coclious me hondro): Fresh snails cooked with olive oil, salt, onion and red wine served in a cracked wheat stew. You’ll never look at eating snails in the same way again. Added bonus: you will also earn serious Cretan cred by eating this dish. We’re told many travelers shy away from it. Not only did we enjoy eating it, but we felt honored to have been served it.

Traditional Cretan Meal of Snails
Cretan Dinner, Snails with Barley – Apostoli, Crete

Cretan Rice: A rich, filling staple of Cretan weddings. Cretan wedding rice is made by boiling a side of sheep (we’re told older sheep are better for this dish) for hours and hours so that the meat becomes fall-off-the-bone tender. Served with rice cooked in sheep broth. It may sound boring, but the richness and depth of flavor will surprise you.

Artichoke hearts with wild hare: I heart artichokes. So imagine my excitement when we were served a dish overflowing with artichoke hearts stewed with wild hare (or the next door neighbor’s rabbit) and crushed tomatoes. I had to really work hard not to eat myself sick with this dish.

Rabbit and Artichoke Stew - Crete
Rabbit and Artichoke Stew

Where we ate it: We enjoyed the main dishes above at Kalliope Kehadiadaki’s Taverna in the village of Apostoloi in the hills just southeast of Rethymno (Tel: 30 28330 61285). Kalliope’s cooking is famous with locals and visitors alike. And, she’s a sweetheart grandmother. There’s no menu; just chat with Kalliope regarding what she has fresh and what you like. Ingredients come from her family farm or from other farms in the village. Very reasonably priced – €10-€15/person for a feast, including her husband’s wine and raki. The journey into the hills to find it is worth it. Special thanks goes to our guide, Ioanna Glypti, for introducing us. We would never have found it without her.

Psitos: Pork (usually) and potatoes slow-cooked in a traditional Cretan wood-burning oven. When the oven is hot enough, the wood coals are removed and trays of pork with potatoes are placed inside. The oven door is then sealed so no liquid or air can get out or in. Cooks for about 3 hours. It may not look like much in the photo below, but it is truly delicious and tender.

Psitos (Roasted Pork and Potatoes) - Crete, Greece
Psitos (Roasted Pork and Potatoes)

Where we ate it: Seli Ambelou, a family run taverna near the Venetian windmills on the way to Lassithi Plateau. This place is full of Cretan families on Sunday out for their weekly meal.

Cretan Seafood: We were surprised to learn that although Crete is an island, people don’t eat seafood as much as they do meat. One reason for this is that overfishing has pushed up the price of seafood. When you do find local seafood, it’s usually cooked lightly in olive oil. Worth a splurge.

Seafood Overload - Spinalonga, Crete
Seafood Overload – Spinalonga, Crete

Where we ate it: Taverna Spinalonga ARIS in Plaka. A great place to have a long seafood lunch after visiting Spinalonga island.

Something Sweet: Cretan Desserts

Candied fruit: Candied fruit may sound boring. But when done right, it can be terrific. In this case, take the sour perfume-fragrant skin of a pergamont (pergamonto, or bergamot orange), candy it in sweet syrup , serve it with fresh yogurt and side it with raki. Never tasted anything quite like it. An inspired finish to a meal.

Cretan Dessert of Bergamot and Greek Yogurt - Plaka, Crete
Cretan Dessert of Bergamot and Greek Yogurt

Loukoumades: Like hand-made donut holes fried in olive oil and topped with honey, cinnamon, and finely ground earthy bits like sesame or nuts. Decadent.

Loukoumades - Heraklion, Crete
Loukoumades – Heraklion, Crete

Bugatsa: Pastry filled with cream and/or cheese, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The most famous bugatsa is served at Kipkop in Heraklion, founded in 1922 by Armenian immigrants who serve up the same recipe to this day.

Bougatsa at Kipkop - Heraklion, Crete
Bougatsa at Kipkop – Heraklion, Crete

Filo dough: While filo dough isn’t a dessert per se, it’s the foundation of many desserts on Crete, including the ubiquitous baklava. You’ll never look at filo dough again in the same way after visiting George Hadziparshos’ bakery in Rethymno (Address: Verbadov 30). He takes a small ball of dough and in his methodical way stretches it over a burlap covered mattress — without a single tear, bubble or hole. Amazing.

Stretching the Filo Dough - Rethymnon, Crete
Stretching the Filo Dough – Rethymnon, Crete

Something to Drink

Raki: It’s hard to visit Crete without drinking raki — a couple of times a day. Although raki is made in the same way as Italian grappa – from the remains of grapes (pits/skins) – it is fortunately smoother and less potent. And, it’s almost always served with food like savory little snacks or dessert.

Morning Snack at Heraklion Market - Crete, Greece
A typical spread to pair with raki at a local Cretan cafe.

When it’s time to make the raki (October-November), Viki explained: “I can hear the smell of alcohol.” Yes, you can literally hear the crackling of the wood and the sound of raki stills piping away. Then you know it’s time to join friends and neighbors to eat, drink and fill up bottles of raki straight from the still.

Cretan Wine
Crete is one of the Greece’s biggest wine producers. Most of the wine that we tried was of the local village homemade variety. While most of it was acceptable table wine, it didn’t strike us as exceptional. However, one of our guides gave us a bottle of her husband’s red wine and we were convinced that Cretan wine could, in fact, be truly excellent.

Herbal Tea
In the middle of the day or at its end, look for herbal teas. Never thought you could make wild oregano tea? You can, and it’s nice. Mix and match herbs, or better yet, let your knowledgeable host do it for you. And stay on the look out for malotera, or mountain tea. A great way to keep your body hydrated and refreshed as you eat your way around the island.

Kalí óreksi!

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the Crete Food photo set.

 

Disclosure: Our trip to Crete was supported by Visit Greece. Most but not all expenses have been paid for. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own. And we’d like to give a special thanks to our guides from the Crete Guide Association – Viki Vlachaki, Katerina Tsagaraki, Ioanna Glypti, Stavroula Stratigi and Vasso Katsantonis – for their personal introductions to Crete’s cuisine and culture.

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Great Meals and the Lessons They Taught Ushttp://uncorneredmarket.com/great-meals-lessons/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/great-meals-lessons/#comments Wed, 04 Jan 2012 19:44:14 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=10057 By Audrey Scott

We can learn from our food. Really. As I assembled photos and descriptions for our recent 2011 travel round-up post, I kept getting distracted. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know me, food was the culprit. I was continually drawn back to memories of unforgettable meals from each country — memories not only of the taste, […]

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By Audrey Scott

Dan and Grandma Kaliope - Apostili, Crete
Dan and Grandma Kaliope from Crete.

We can learn from our food.

Really.

As I assembled photos and descriptions for our recent 2011 travel round-up post, I kept getting distracted. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who know me, food was the culprit. I was continually drawn back to memories of unforgettable meals from each country — memories not only of the taste, but to the time, the place, the people.

When I considered these experiences, a few instructive themes emerged.

So what were some of those great meals in 2011? And perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them to take with us into 2012?

Let’s dig in!

Favorite Meals and Lessons

Amari Valley, Crete: Go Local

“There’s no menu here. The grandmother just cooks what is fresh on the farm – either recently harvested or recently slaughtered,” our guide offered as we entered a simple mountain village kitchen-cum-restaurant in the Amari Valley on the Greek island of Crete.

Over the course of the next two days, Grandma Kaliope (pictured above) took us on a tour of Cretan mountain cuisine: snails in crushed tomato and garlic sauce, rabbit with artichoke hearts, sheep-stewed Cretan rice, sweet potato fritters and a constellation of small plates too vast to enumerate. Grandma knew how to combine fresh ingredients just so – each played a role, everything had its place.

Traditional Cretan Meal of Snails
Cretan snails. Eat them and you’ll get Cretan mountain cred.

Lesson learned: Simplicity and freshness are a powerful combination. You can taste each ingredient to its fullest flavor. What is needed for the dish is there; nothing extraneous needed. An apt lesson for looking at life ingredients.

Istanbul, Turkey: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

Çiğ köfte is raw meat (beef or lamb) mixed with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices. Our first taste of it was in Berlin, where it was hand-pressed into something that can best be described as turd-like, then tucked into a lettuce leaf. But it wasn’t until we arrived in the Tophane neighborhood of Istanbul this fall that our love affair with this Turkish snack food really began. It may not look like much when you first see it as a large mound, it may look even less appetizing when it’s spread across durum flatbread, and even less delightful still when hand-pressed into a brown plug. But if it’s done well, it can taste of amazing.

Çiğ Köfte - Istanbul, Turkey
Çiğ köfte smeared onto durumflatbread with greens in waiting. Dazzling.

Lesson learned: Just because something looks like sh*t doesn’t mean it tastes like it. At life’s door, consider leaving the pre-conceived notions.

Tanzania: Manage Your Expectations, Find Pleasant Surprises

When we planned our trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and to go on safari, we didn’t expect the food to be a trip highlight. And for the most part, it was not. But one meal in particular stood out as exceptional — a veritable Tanzanian lunchtime feast served in Mto wa Mbu near Lake Manyara.

The flavors of our Tanzanian feast seemed to match the locally available vegetables and meat just nicely. Indian-influenced banana curry and pilau worked well with beef stew, spinach and the local Tanzanian-style polenta called ugali.

Tanzanian Food Mosaic - Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania
Tanzanian lunch, from start to finish.

Lesson: Manage your expectations, and your delight and disappointment just might find better balance.

Koh Samui, Thailand: Keep Digging, Experimenting

Thai food continues to be one of our all time favorite world cuisines. And we have a list of familiar dishes we just adore. But when we stayed on the island of Koh Samui at the beginning of last year, a friend pushed us to order something random with each new food outing. And with that push, we discovered even greater dimensions of Thai food deliciousness.

Our new favorite? Pla goong – a raw shrimp salad cooked with the heat of lime juice and tossed with lemongrass slices, kaffir lime leaves, and chili peppers. Like a New Year’s Eve party in your mouth. Terrifically fresh.

Shrimp Lemongrass Salad - Koh Samui, Thailand
Shrimp Lemongrass Salad. So good.

Lesson: So even if you have favorites, take a risk. Try something different. Pepper your selections with something new, something fresh. This approach can keep you on your toes and remind you that new favorites can only be discovered when you stray from your routine.

Azraq, Jordan: You Don’t Need to Be Fancy to Be Good

After our travels through Jordan, one of our friends at the Jordan Tourism Board asked us about our favorite meal in the country. We’d eaten in so many terrific restaurants and 5-star hotels in Jordan, but I offered a shocking response: a family meal at a home on the edge of the desert in the town of Azraq. Not only was the quality of the food top notch and the dishes unique, but the experience of eating in a Jordanian home firmly seated the experience in my permanent memory.

Eating Family Style in Azraq, Jordan
Eating Family Style in Azraq

Lesson: It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. Family style, small plate eating: especially when you are attempting to get to know a cuisine, this is where it’s at.

Bangladesh: What Tools Do You Really Need?

Not only did the Bangladeshi food served to us during our village homestay turn out to be the best in the whole country, but I was humbled by how our host mother was able to churn out such vast quantities of quality food from a simple wood-fired kitchen dug into the mud. She also did absolutely everything by hand.

Bangladeshi Cooking at Home Stay in Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Imagine what this woman could do with a Viking stove.

Lesson: You don’t need a fancy kitchen to cook kick ass food. A simple pot or pan, a fire, some fresh ingredients and a little bit of love (don’t forget that) is about all you really need.

Makes me wonder what stuff we really need to make a kick-ass life.

Bali: Take a Cooking Class

It’s heartbreaking to witness how booming tourism can take its toll, even on the local cuisine. Bali was one such example where tourist traffic begat cuisine dilution. Many restaurants seemed to serve watered down versions of local dishes or altogether non-local Asian hybrid food just because it was cheap and easy. We were about to give up on Balinese cuisine when we decided to take a Balinese cooking class. Our opinion of and respect for Balinese food changed completely.

Tuna Sambal Matah - Bali, Indonesia
Seared tuna with “raw” sambal.

Lesson: Cooking classes offer one of the best routes to a basic understanding of the fundamentals of a cuisine. Same thing goes in life. It’s one thing to read about something, it’s another to get hands on and do it yourself.

Berlin: Seize Your Curiosity, Now

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know we have a love affair with Berlin and its ever-improving food scene. After riding our bikes around our neighborhood of Neukölln for a week, Dan kept noticing a Lebanese hole-in-the-wall cafe that witnessed a constant stream of people coming in and out.

We were intrigued, so we stopped in for lunch one day and and promptly fell in love with the place.

Not only did Azzam serve up fantastic Lebanese food with some of the best hummus and falafel around, but it also featured some unusual yet traditional dishes such as msabaha, a whole chickpea dip, and manaeesh, za’atar and cheese-topped breads. No wonder the Middle Eastern community came in droves.

And we joined them, all summer long.

Msabaha (Hummus Variety) at Azzam Restaurant - Neukölln, Berlin
Msabaha, a warm variation of your standard hummus.

Lesson: Follow your curiosity. Don’t put it off. Just do it. Now.

Tabriz, Iran: If You Want to Break the Ice, Break Bread

After two weeks of a heavy kebab diet in Iran, we were desperately craving vegetables. So when our guide invited us to his home for dinner, he smiled, “Don’t worry, my wife will cook. No kebabs.”

And his wife did not disappoint: vegetable soup and stuffed pepper and quince dolmas with just the perfect spice combination of cinnamon and cumin.

Perhaps even more crucial to our overall experience in Iran: as the meal progressed, the initial formality of meeting new people (we were introduced to the immediate family and their cousins) washed away as everyone sat together on the ground, sharing food and sharing of themselves. As the conversation continued, it moved from food to every other dimension of life in Iran.

Dinner in an Iranian Home - Tabriz, Iran
Dinner in an Iranian Home

Lesson: Food is the great leveler. Sharing meals is a way to break down barriers, build trust and develop friendships.

So food, the pathway to the stomach, the pathway to the psyche. And food: where simplicity, curiosity and humanity can all find a home. Where great meals are more than just about the food you eat, but about the journey — the people, the experience, the memory and the places firm and far — and what it can teach you about life.

What are some of your greatest meals? And what lessons have they taught you?

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