Moscow’s Quirky Vending Machines

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:

Moscow, Russia - Putin T-Shirt Vending Machine

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.

Moscow, Russia - Contact Lense Vending Machine

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.

Moscow, Russia - Japanese Vending Machine

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?

Moscow, Russia - Caviar Vending Machine

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?

Unforgettable Breakfasts in Sapporo, Japan

We have both been duped by today’s title.

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…

Sapporo - Nijo Market GoodsCase in point, over at the Nijo Market, you can buy bear-in-a-can ( kuma in a kan), seal (海豹 azarashi) curry and tinned Steller’s sea lion (todo).

Sapporo - Steller's Sea Lion and Onikoroshi Refined Sake

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.


Sapporo - Yamazaki Pan, Chocolate Wafer & Whipped CreamGetting 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/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.

Sapporo - Kaitenzushi Shirako

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.

Coffee Ramen: You Never Knew You Wanted It

Ten ingredients you may not want to see in the same bowl of ramen:

  1. Coffee beans
  2. Coffee noodles
  3. Eggs (and their yolks)
  4. Vanilla ice cream
  5. Bananas
  6. Gouda (inexorably processed, that is)
  7. Kamaboko (processed fish cake with mind-numbing preservatives)
  8. Kiwi
  9. Salami
  10. Ham

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 so yesterday‘s news, I cautiously introduce you to coffee ramen.

Ohanajaya - Aroma Coffee Ramen1
Your guide to caffeinated calamity

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.

I despise kitsch
I despise kitsch

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.

Ohanajaya - Aroma Coffee Ramen3This 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?

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways (Mérida, México)

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.

For instance, there’s chocolate.  I’ve wondered why Mexican chocolate doesn’t get much attention around the world, in spite of being the ancestral home of Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for the original cacao tree.  Of course, colonial empires and globalization have played a role in spreading the harvesting of cacao throughout many tropical countries, namely the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

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.

Hot Chocolate, Two Ways, Ki’XOCOLATL (from left to right, “brown sugar, cinnamon, achiote, allspice, and habanero;” honey is in the container on the central plate)

Though there are some debates as to the origins of the word chocolate, it no doubt stems from Nahuatl, a language spoken for centuries in rural parts of central Mexico; xocolia means “to make bitter,” and atl refers to “water.”

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!

Five Meals in Baku, Azerbaijan

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.

Piti, a soup made with a base of chickpeas, lamb, and chestnuts, comes from the northwestern town of Sheki.  It is always served in an earthenware pot, and can even include quince, cherries, and other items, depending on the season.

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.

Now we’re talking!  Lyulya kebabs, made of minced lamb, onion and plenty of salt, served with more onion, delightfully chewy bread, and narsharab, an Azeri condiment made of sweet and sour pomegranates.  Pomegranates are known as the king of fruit in Azerbaijan, where more than 200 varieties of the vermilion fruit are grown.  Even some dishes are made with pomegranates and eggs…I’m curious about this one.

Just don’t throw that bread out.  It’s rude.

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.

If you want to read more about Azerbaijani cuisine, check out this article.

Three Tamales and a Cup of Atole in Atzacan, Mexico

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.

Downtown Atzacan

Last year, with friend who called the region home, I visited the small municipality of Atzacan.  For those linguists out there, the name Atzacan derives from three Náhuatl (a group including the Aztecs) words— atl, or water, tzaqua, or stop, and can, or place; in other words, “the place where the water stops.”

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.

Beans Vendor at a Food Market in Downtown Atzacan

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.

Although the tamal can be found in countless forms stretching from Mexico to Chile, I couldn’t believe how many types there were just in Atzacan!  Given how filling tamales are, we only sampled a few:

Chocolate Tamal, Strawberry Tamal, and a Cup of Corn Atole (not seen, the Rapidly Devoured Coconut Tamal)

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.

As for the atole, the hot drink made of masa, cinnamon, water, and often raw cane sugar (piloncillo), it’s a particularly heavy pairing with tamales, though no less tasty.  Over time, atoles, too  have come to be prepared with guavas, pineapple, nuts, and other naturally sweet ingredients…though its most famous cousin, champurrado, is made with masa, water, and chocolate.

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?

Even a Bad Airline Meal Meant You Were Traveling

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.
Emirates, DXB-JFK
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:

American Airlines, MIA-LPB
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, HKG-DACDragonair (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, CTU-SZX
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, LPQ-BKK

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.

What do you remember most about airline meals?

Nutrition Facts, or Nutrition Lies?

Fuzzy math, indeed.

I was chowing down on some Nature Valley Pumpkin Spice granola bars the other day, when I noticed the perplexing Nutrition Facts label on the packaging:

“Nutrition Facts”

If I am reading the percentages (%) and Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC) correctly, I should probably hold a conference call with my elementary school teachers first.

Let’s take the Saturated Fat content as an example.  According to this packaging, one (1) granola bar contains 0g of Saturated Fat.  However, doubling that amount to two (2) increases the content to 1g, which suddenly comes to 4% of one’s Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Saturated Fat.  I suppose we can infer that .25g of Saturated Fat = 1% of the RDA, but if one (1) bar didn’t have any to begin with, how does adding another give us 4%?

Not to mention, should consumers even be aiming for 100% Saturated Fat intake on a daily basis?  Is it analogous to selling products for $9.99 as opposed to $10.00?  Of course not…if you are eating nearly 100% Saturated Fat everyday, you’re going to be in for a world of pain just after a few weeks.  But if you saved one penny everyday on a purchase, you’d have just enough after one year to buy…a package of Nature Valley Granola Bars.  Whoops, there’s tax added after, too bad.

That’s just one of many cogent instances of a mostly pointless yet nearly ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label.  Did you happen to notice the Calcium, Iron, and Protein content, when comparing one to two granola bars?

You see, in the United States Nutrition Facts only became required on packaged food and beverages in 1990; even these days, some smaller packaging asks you to send a letter or call the company to inquire about nutrition information.

Moreover, as per the International Food Information Council Foundation

Serving sizes listed on packaged foods and beverages are determined by how much of that item people typically consume at one time. They are not recommendations for how much people should consume.

Quite the revelation…but then again, how does one determine a serving size for butter, soft drinks, or crème brûlée, things no one should be consuming?

Interestingly, it was only in 1973 that Nutrition Facts labels first started to appear on FDA (Food and Drug Administration)-regulated products; the things that had to be shown were:

  • the number of calories
  • protein (in grams)
  • carbohydrates (g)
  • “fat” (g)

and the percentage of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance of:

  • protein
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C
  • thiamin (vitamin B1, which converts carbs into energy)
  • riboflavin (vitamin B2, breaks down carbs/proteins/fats to produce energy, and allows oxygen to be used by the body)
  • niacin (vitamin B3, helps keep nervous and digestive systems and the skin healthy, is involved in cellular metabolism)
  • calcium
  • iron

Curiously, sodium, saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat contents were not mandated to be on the original Nutrition Facts labels, as categories were at the discretion of the food manufacturers.

Although I have no hope for Nutrition Facts reform in the current Beltway morass, having a quantitative baseline legend ( x {for example, # of grams= 1% of the RDA of a nutrient}, 1+1 = 2, etc.) would be a start.  Not allowing food and beverage companies to include various incomprehensible chemical compounds and additives is a topic for another day – then again, many of us can opt not to buy those things – but I would like to see some clarity and honesty when it comes to nutritional content.