I’ve trumpeted Mexico’s outstanding food before, but how about their drinks? Does their array of natural juices, Prehispanic concoctions, liquors, and Jarritos nicely complement Mexican cuisine? Yes, quite often, I must say!
On the topic of indigenous beverages, let’s look at a couple – tejate, and pozontle – which both originate in the present-day state of Oaxaca.
Fantasy: It’s a food market in Mexico, I am invincible!
Reality: It’s a food market (in Mexico), throw good hygiene to the wind.
Yes, tejate, the first of today’s two Pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) drinks, is often seen in vats at markets and bazaars in Oaxaca. Centuries before the Aztecs, the Zapotec peoples of contemporary Oaxaca were enjoying tejate. Its ingredients include water, toasted corn, pixtle (ground roasted mamey pits; incidentally, pitztli means bone or seed in the Aztec language Nahuatl), fermented cacao beans, and cacao flowers. The cacao was most likely introduced to Oaxaca from Chiapas state in Mexico through early bartering.
Generally, it is served in a bowl made of jícara, an inedible fruit from the calabash tree:
I consider tejate a light and very frothy drink, a bit bitter and not too sweet. Though there are indeed, differences in flavors, I had a similar opinion regarding the less well-known Oaxacan beverage, pozontle.
Pozontle’s four more recognizable ingredients are water, panela (unrefined cane sugar), and ground specks of cacao and corn. The cacao and corn are rolled into little spheres, which are then dissolved in panela water. The fifth ingredient, called cocolmécatl, is a vine in the Smilax genus that when ground, causes the rest of the pozontle mixture to foam.
Many of us might be quite familiar with Mexican dishes. But when it comes to Prehispanic drinks, that’s an entirely different world worth discovering.
You may not think of Russia these days as a soda powerhouse, and that’s possibly because you didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union, or in a Russian-speaking neighborhood. They’ve got quite a loyal following for some drinks – if I can find the picture, I will also write about the neon green tarragon-flavored soda – and the flavors from decades ago sound equally tantalizing.
Does pine-flavored soda intrigue you? Or, have you given up on sodas all together and go straight for the sugar packets?
While in the Marshallese commercial, cultural, and political hub, being in a new country and region, I just had to try some of the local Marshallese food. And if you’re thinking it’s simply coconuts and fish… partial credit.
The first local meal I recall trying was at The Tide Table restaurant of the Hotel Robert Reimers. Being jet-lagged but peckish, I chatted with the waitress about Marshallese eats; surprise, surprise, coconuts and fish came up, in addition to the Hawaiian dish known as “loco moco.”
Loco moco consists of boiled white rice, a hamburger, scrambled eggs, and some mysterious brown gravy. It’s not local, but then again, it was the most regional dish on their menu (take that, Caesar salad). I kinda liked it, but perhaps the drinks menu could offer something nuanced?
Eureka! Pandanus juice– that’s the orange liquid in the mysteriously unlabeled bottle. It was delicious! But describing the flavor of pandan(us) – an ingredient common to Southeast Asian desserts, too – is a bit difficult. Quite sweet, and probably a better name for something that people eat than its synonym, screw pine.
Now, if we take pandanus and put it on the delicious side of the Marshallese spectrum, what’s at the other end? Easy peasy: the noni fruit.
The noni fruit – native to Southeast Asia and Polynesian islands – might be known to some of you in pill or extract form to treat various maladies. I know it better as a disgusting, vile food that might even put some durian to shame.
For background, I went to a beach party, and found one of these pock-marked fruits lying around on a table. Ever the adventurous if naïve eater, I took a bite. Yuck! It tasted of rotten bleu cheese. One of my peers saw my reaction, and brought a fresh coconut over to drink. If a friend invites you to some noni and shirako, you might want to start interviewing for new amigos.
Eventually, I was able to explore Majuro, primarily to investigate local bites. The Marshall Islands accepts US dollars, so I was free to spend the wad without forex fees…but the question is, what to spend it on?
Coupled with one of the most random newspaper ads I have ever seen, I sat down at a casual place for a very filling meal. To start, I ordered a predictable coconut water, some pumpkin porridge, and grilled red snapper. Simple fare, both fresh and welcoming.
Note the condiments on the left: tabasco sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
Since the porridge and snapper tasted nice, I wanted to give them more business. Above, we have mashed sweetened sweet potatoes, and on the left, a staple starch of the Marshall Islands, the breadfruit. Having never tried a slice of breadfruit, I was blown away by its billowy French toast texture, just-right sweetness, and tropical abundance, for the next time I should have a craving.
Right before leaving Majuro, I went with a few peers to go fishing. Our local contact gave us a sampling of his home-smoked swordfish jerky, and some mercilessly hacked coconut meat.
Individually, they tasted pleasant, but combined they were even better, reminding me that cities like New York City and London might have flavors from all over the world, but the quality from the freshness is sorely lacking.
Another thing, you may not want to eat too much coconut meat, as it’s fattening like no tomorrow.
After one week touring Majuro and a few of its islets, it was time to take the long journey back to the states, starting with that trippy flight to Honolulu. You know, one of those take-off in the evening of Day 1, and land in the early morning of Day 1 flights. There was a problem, though. I forgot to buy edible souvenirs!
No worries, Majuro Airport has you covered.
Rum, Rice Krispies Treats, and eggs. Wow! This flight is going to be blast.
Have you been to the Marshall Islands? Which of the above foods would you most want to try first?
Though Russian points of interest will make future appearances on LearningFeelsGood, most fresh in my recent stroll through trip photos is the unexpected amusement found in the form of Moscow vending machines…and here I thought Japan had already cornered the market on this stuff.
Without further ado, let’s take a gander at a few surprising – and one not so surprising – souvenirs:
Now you too can own a t-shirt of Dear Leader Putin wearing shades. Or a hat. Or neither. Not to mention, why isn’t Patriot Box written in Russian too? Because locals. Already. Know.
Contact lenses in a vending machine. Stick your eye into that little slot in the lower right…no, that’s not it. So then, was this purpose-built with one person in mind? Yeah, if I had my own vending machine, it would probably sell pillows. Or tacos.
This is a neat idea–a vending machine selling only Japanese products. When I bought a bottle of green tea from this one, it uttered “有り難う御座います” (arigatou gozaimasu/thank you). Also, note that the upper left sign is pointing to the hot drinks, and the lower right, the chilled drinks.
Actual oranges being squeezed in this Zummo machine, presumably with nothing else added…sweeeeet! But, how long have they been sitting there?
Food. Well, to me at least. This is what you were expecting to find in Russia, right– a caviar vending machine? Maybe by the Caspian Sea.
Even with the agreeable exchange rate, I still didn’t dive in to a jar of икра (ee-kra). Guess I’ll have to settle for the fake stuff for now.
Which of these products, if any, appeals most to you? Seen any vending machines in Moscow that should be added to the list?
I wish I could say that my breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan were unforgettable in the positive sense – then again, I did have control over what was to be eaten – but to be fair, it was only one day’s selections that were unique.
I was drawn to Hokkaido’s largest city by, what else, food, and indeed sampled more hits than misses. Down the line, we’ll cover more of what I ate, but today the focus is on one of my multi-breakfast days.
A short walk from my hotel led me to Nijo Market (二条市場), arguably Sapporo’s most famous. A relatively relaxing place compared to other markets in the country, it also has products much harder to find outside of Hokkaido…
Case in point, over at the Nijo Market, you can buy bear-in-a-can (熊kuma in a 缶kan), seal (海豹azarashi) curry and tinned Steller’s sea lion (todo).
It was a tough decision, but I went with stewed sea lion, served in the 大和煮 (yamato-ni) style, which means stewed with soy sauce, ginger, and sugar. How do you wash that all down at 7:30 in the morning? With a US$.80 juice box of sake called “Demon Slayer.”
The stew was well-seasoned – nothing surprising for Japan – and you definitely knew it wasn’t your standard issue beef or pork. Or tube-shaped fish paste cake.
Getting my daily dose of bread was next on the list, so I flocked to the nearest convenience store for inspiration. The brand Yamazaki Pan comes up with rather bizarre crust-less bread creations, and if you couldn’t read Japanese but knew about Japanese food, you might be forgiven for thinking that they are all stuffed with mayonnaise and yakisoba.
That is unless you noticed the handy graphics depicting what is likely inside. In this package, we have Fujiya chocolate wafers and whipped cream. The wafers seemed a bit stale, but on the whole the sandwiches did the trick.
One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is hunkering down at a kaitenzushi restaurant (回転寿司屋/conveyor belt sushi). Not only do they have nearly unlimited tea and pickled ginger (made easier because they are self-serve), but you can also often find ネタ (neta, toppings/ingredients for sushi) unique to that establishment. I’ll go over this in more detail another time, but matsutake mushrooms, raw chicken and hamburgers have been spotted in addition to seafood.
Those toppings are head-scratching enough, but what about 白子 (shirako)?
Shirako, or milt, is the seminal fluid of various fish. Yet, it wasn’t so much what I was eating but the texture of it.
That’s a lie. It was both.
Needless to say, that was the best lemon I have ever eaten.
Ten ingredients you may not want to see in the same bowl of ramen:
Eggs (and their yolks)
Vanilla ice cream
Gouda (inexorably processed, that is)
Kamaboko (processed fish cake with mind-numbing preservatives)
with a generous sprinkling of Japanese parmesan cheese, because that’s what you were missing. Listverse, here I come.
Is this the antithesis of Tampopo, the Japanese movie about a woman trying to create the perfect bowl of ramen? Probably. But in a country where using Colonel Sanders as a buoy is soyesterday‘s news, I cautiously introduce you to coffee ramen.
The restaurant’s (it’s more of a kissaten, or coffee shop) name is 亜呂摩,or Aroma, and it’s located in Ohanajaya, Katsushika district, in the endless sea of black- and graham cracker-tinted hair specifically known as Tokyo, but generally known as Japan. Rookie advice: don’t go on Wednesdays- that’s the off day. I carelessly made the nearly hour long trek from Narita Airport first on a Wednesday, and got shot down. The typhoon happening at the time made it that much more of a thrill, as umbrellas suddenly lose their will to live.
The chef was an older affable man, and used to having foreigners in his restaurant. Not that the restaurant gets too many non-Japanese in the first place, but he’ll probably ask you to sign a guestbook, Pre-consumption of said ramen. He told me he changes the ingredients, or toppings might be a better word, every once and again, but don’t fret, for parmesan cheese is a staple garnish. You can try it hot or cold, but because I wanted to make it back to my hotel without being slumped over the whole time, I tried it cold.
Oh, and I don’t even much like coffee.
This is a great dish to make for your significant other when you’re about to break up with her/him. Unless she/he digs this kind of stuff, then you’re sending all the wrong signals.
After all of the muted hype, it wasn’t half-bad; better yet, at the time it cost only ¥700 (which can be anywhere from US$6.40-8.50, depending on how skilled you are in the forex game). The noodles were skillfully cooked, and the chef appeared humbled by his bizarre creation. Sure, that pink and white ninja weapon is none other than kamaboko (蒲鉾), patiently seated atop banana and kiwi slices, and the coffee bean riding the egg yolk evokes Salvador Dalí, but the majority of the dish, true to its name, had the flavor of (sweetened) Boss coffee, which apparently keeps bringing ’em in.
Don’t cower out and eat the toppings by themselves. That ham looks way too relaxed on the sidelines. Take a piece, then scoop out some kiwi and egg, dip it into the murky broth and slurp to your heart’s content. Fact is, I rarely eat any type of ramen, since most of the time I feel as if I’m in a salt mine while doing so. Also, if you’re not too adept at using chopsticks, it would seem wise to eat ramen if you’re not wearing a shirt.
Is it time you experienced coffee ramen? If you’ve already tried it, wouldn’t you want to know where to find life’s rewind button?
Two years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun. As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.
Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan. Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it. Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in México.
Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink. Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.
When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water. Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.
After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets. Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it. The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar. The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water. The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.
Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.
Where have you tried your favorite cup of hot chocolate? Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!
In late 2016, I visited Baku, Azerbaijan, after learning about the ease of getting a tourist visa if you were a passenger on Azerbaijan Airlines’New York JFK-Baku GYD flight. With more time, I would have explored the vast biodiversity of the country; however, this short trip was focused on Baku, the Azeri capital, and a few of regional historical landmarks.
As such, today’s post will be centered on a few meals that I tried while in Baku. With food heavily influenced by Turkish and Iranian cuisines – as well as Russian cuisine – I had high hopes for the Caspian Sea metropolis. Nuş Olsun (Bon Appétit)!
Having done no prior food and drink research about Baku, I decided to rely on the local knowledge of the Azerbaijan Airlines flight attendants; their suggestions were written below, on a less than flattering in-flight sickness bag.
While paying homage to the FAs’ recommendations, the first thing that I ate in Baku was a quince. Most commonly consumed as a fruit spread, quinces are quite popular in the Caucasus region. I think quince jams and paste go great with manchego and melba toast, but take my word for it, a raw quince is astringent, awkwardly crunchy, and thus no bueno.
After a day trip to a couple of cool places – I will get into them at a later time – my shady taxi driver dropped me off at this restaurant, ostensibly managed by his “friend.” Nevertheless, it was a good intro to Azerbaijani food, replete with delicious pomegranate, pickled eggplant, local non-spicy giardiniera, somewhat bland bread (more on this in a moment), raw greens, ayran – a mix of yoghurt, water, and salt – and piti. What, a piti? Sorry.
About half way through eating the piti, a waiter came by to demonstrate that I was eating it wrong. You are supposed to rip up the bread, place it in the bowl, and then pour the piti on it. The pickles (and onions, which I had already eaten by this time) are a traditional accompaniment, as is the floral yet subtle sumac to sprinkle on top. When eaten correctly, it all comes together so much better~
Xaş (khash)…here’s where we get into the doldrums. Originally a cheap meal for farmers, and found as far away as Mongolia and Greece, khash is a stew made of tendons in cow and/or sheep feet. In Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, it’s generally eaten in the winter, and is amusingly eaten to overcome hangovers.
It was extremely oily, heavy without any pleasant flavor, and ultimately not something I’d want to eat again.
What better way to finish off a brief tour of Azerbaijani food than with paxlava, also known as bakhlava? The intricately designed paxlava on the top left is called şəkərbura (roughly, shekerbura), and is filled with walnuts and sugar. On the bottom, tenbel paxlava, or lazy paxlava, made with ground walnuts, sugar, and a sweet syrup. Although I’m a tea drinker nearly 100% of the time when compared to coffee, as this was a jet lag dish, I went for a cuppa.
As of today – and since many years back – my top three countries for food, in no order, are Mexico, Turkey, and Japan. There are plenty of countries out there with excellent eats, and I’m still missing what I believe to be heavy-hitters in the culinary world (the biggest one being Iran), but for a variety of factors, those three places are tops.
Thus, having friends or family in those destinations also works out swimmingly. Whether it’s local knowledge, language help, or having someone who doesn’t mind mouthing off to line-jumpers, you will cherish the experience.
Case-in-point, let’s take a brief look at the city of Atzacan, located in Mexico’s Veracruz state.
Founded in 1825, Atzacan is best known for its maize (corn) and beans, as well as an annual festival in April celebrating Santa Ana (Saint Anne), its patroness saint.
Of course, we were there to eat. Given the spectacularly diverse terrain in this part of Mexico – among sloping hills and tropical valleys, volcanoes and thus, fertile soil also pepper the landscape – my friend was tipped off about tamales and atole as being local specialties.
This was a cool find for at least a trio of reasons. One, it’s Mexican food, so it’s mostly likely going to be delicious. Two, it’s a locavore’s delight. And three, my tamale knowledge was woefully limited until that day.
Again, given the terroir of the region surrounding Atzacan, ingredients as diverse as berries, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, bananas, and many other things could be mixed in with the masa, or nixtamalized corn dough, to prepare the tamal.
My short visit to Atzacan was something of an eye-opener. Not only did it provide more context to the breadth of super-local Mexican cuisine, but it also made me appreciate a bit more places that take pride in what they produce for themselves.
Have you visited Atzacan, or anywhere in the state of Veracruz? Are you a fan of tamales and atoles?
As a former frequent leisure traveler, this COVID-19 pandemic is a real cliché dust-creator for passports. Nevertheless, I wanted to reflect on a few airline meals, that stood out not for being good, but just because even unpleasant in-flight service meant that you were traveling somewhere.
Baked beans and mushrooms? Thanks for your contribution, Her Majesty
The US airlines for the most part make it simple these days when flying between and in the fifty states- no free meals in economy class, save for a few cross-country flights. On the flip side, I guess we can’t blame them for the inevitably inferior quality if they were still serving meals. Still, if I could get one of those rock-solid pieces of bread with butter, it could tide us over for a spell. Better to have never received free food in-flight in the first place, because passengers wouldn’t be able to make that their excuse du jour. Shoot, if I’m going to be stuck on an airplane for any amount of time, I’d rather be eating something I know is good, say a five dollar bottle of Hudson News-water, two Advil or take-out from a Salvadorean restaurant.
Ahh, Salvadorean food. Sure, airport security in many places wouldn’t permit you to take the condiments– pickled cabbage being the número uno cause of airborne anarchy– through the checkpoints, but I wonder how many people have been introduced to a country’s cuisine based on the airline they were flying. We’ve already taken a peek at a British breakfast above, but that was with Emirates, which might as well be the 3rd British carrier, but let’s see what kind of hometown pride other airlines have:
We’ll begin with the most painful volunteer, American Airlines, from Miami to La Paz, Bolivia. Did you know that there’s as much fat in that salad dressing as there is in the person in the seat next to you? Oh, hello rock-solid piece of bread. La Paz Airport is the second highest in the world, so I couldn’t tell if I was sick because of the altitude or the…wait, is that Vaseline? I’m getting out of here.
Dragonair (now known as Cathay Dragon, based in Hong Kong), Hong Kong to Dhaka. Never thought you’d see feta cheese and soy-glazed pea pods together? The most representative Hong Kong food in this picture is the TimeOut chocolate bar. Why? It’s produced by Cadbury, a British company. HK was a British territory from the early 1840s until 1997. Folks, that’s the best I got…
Sichuan Airlines (based in Chengdu, China), Chengdu to Shenzhen. Aviation food! No need for the reminder, alas it’s not so much different from Chinese terra firma food. That’s a standard Chinese breakfast food on the right, 粥 zhōu, or rice porridge. In that oh-so-common air-tight packet to its lower left, pickled MSG. No, it’s pickled daikon, a root vegetable. If they gave a packet of sunflower seeds instead of pickles, the aisle would become louder than the engines at take-off.
Bangkok Airways, Luang Prabang, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand. Khao niao, whereas khao=rice and niao=sticky in the Lao language, is present. That’s the best we can do here. Are those carrots wrapped in egg? I have to start prioritizing my memory.