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.

“Landlocked” Seafood: Korean Muchimhoe

Daegu - Muchimhoe (1)

Given Name: 무침회*
Alias: Muchimhoe
Place(s) of Origin: Daegu, Republic of Korea
Place Consumed: Daegu, Republic of Korea
Common Features: Seafood (but not fish), gochujang*
Background: I’d be hard pressed not to find a good meal from the Korean peninsula…heck, even that duck bbq in Pyongyang was quality.

After checking in at my hotel in Daegu, I asked about representative dishes from the area.  Aiming for multiple meals that would make a marine biologist blush, it appeared that I forgot to look at a map in the planning stages of this trip (meaning, three hours before I left)- Daegu isn’t on a coast.  OK, but it’s not far from one either.  A staff member reminded me of this, and proceeded to introduce me to “muchimhoe street*.

Daegu - Muchimhoe (2)Verdict: Excellent, as expected.  Ssam* up the gochujang-laced seafood mix into the lettuce, add a bit of egg and dig in.  Even with the overpowering taste of gochujang, I was able to make out the turban shell, squid and conch, but there were definitely other mollusks present.  Generous amounts of sesame seeds were sprinkled on top, and there weren’t any bones either, so there’s another +2.  A very aquatic affair, with seaweed and sea grass as part of the banchan, and the soup had a salty, “beachy” tinge to it.

Amusingly, the grandmotherly-type figured that as a foreigner, I’d have no idea how to eat anything (Korean).  However, she took this a step further and literally fed me the first bite.  So…if you’re into that kind of thing, keep it to yourself.

Glossary
* 무침회 muchimhoe – “muchim” = mixed with various seasonings; “hoe” = a dish with raw food
* gochujang 고추장- fermented, spicy and slightly sweet red chili sauce made with glutinous rice and soybeans; if you’ve eaten bibimbap, you’ve likely seen gochujang
* muchimhoe street – if you look at the linked map, take exit 1 from Bangogae (반고개) metro station, and walk towards the red pin.  The red pin is Naedang-dong (내당동), the most famous area for this specialty in Daegu…the city isn’t a major destination for foreign tourists, so don’t think just because it’s THE street for muchimhoe that they’re out to rip you off.
* ssam 쌈  (Korean) – “wrap”

Hallucinogens and Heat: A Brief Guide to Eating in the Maldives

Beaches, at least while I’m traveling solo, are somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities.  I might head towards one for a sunset shot, to try local seafood, or to admire the terrain, but not to kick back for hours on end.

Thus, you can imagine my…imagination’s surprise when I flew to the Maldives a some years back.  I was on my way to Colombo, Sri Lanka, so why not fit in a rapidly disappearing archipelago on the way?

Beyond snorkeling between schools of tropical fish and rubbish floating by a jetty near Hulhumale’, and getting nauseous from diesel fumes from the ferries, I wasn’t sure what else to do.

Oh, right.  Let’s explore Maldivian food.

Right off the bat, you should know that fish, specifically skipjack tuna, is THE staple of the Maldives.  The canned (tinned for British English viewers) variety is more and more common, but traditionally the tuna was cured – in this case, boiled, smoked and sun-choked – into a product called ari.  Coconuts are also par for the course, which raises Maldivian food to level awesome.

Secondly, I was glad though not surprised that English was often present.  I had no idea how to say anything in Dhivehi, and the written script looked like one’s breath was trying its damnedest to communicate.

That said, here’s when I had a generally good sense of what I ordered:

Food in the Maldives -  (2)

The first meal I ate in the Maldives was appropriately a tuna-centric one.  It tasted canned, and the chapati – known locally as roshi – was lukewarm at best.  What a disappointment.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the food.  I drank the water, so that’s probably where the disappointment set in.

Food in the Maldives -  (3)

The server knew me well.

Food in the Maldives -  (7)

Oops, more water.

Wandering around downtown Male’ on one of my empty stomachs, I sought refuge in a bustling short eats hole-in-the-wall.

What’s on the menu?  Fried things, round fried things, fried round things, and tuna.  With fried coconut.  And heavily sweetened tea.  And tuna, grilled that is.

The first plates come by.  The lighter things in the lower-left are called gulha, made with tuna, coconut and chilies, and the darker ones are kavaabu, fried with tuna, potatoes and lime.  To the right, we have riha folhi, curried tuna rolls, and in the back, unfortunately I don’t recall the names.  The yellow item that looks like a swimming turtle is NOT an egg, and the glutinous cubes behind it didn’t have much taste.  It’s safe to say that neither of those contained tuna.  Can anyone identify those snacks?

Food in the Maldives -  (4)

Add the fish curry to the list of foods that made me suffer dearly.  I couldn’t speak for a few minutes because it set my mouth on fire for some time.  That the rice was boiling hot didn’t help things, nor did the spicy vegetables (including red onions, another Maldivian favorite).  Which is to say, I’d order that curry again, if only I knew the name!

Food in the Maldives -  (5)

Papaya shake.  Although I often think papayas have a Bubblicious aftertaste, they are refreshing in shake-form.  No sugar, no ice, all fresh…just hope that the glass was properly cleaned.

Now it’s time to go into the “doldrums of food” category:

Food in the Maldives -  (6)

You’re supposed to spit it out

This potent combination of a stimulant – the areca nut, cinnamon, cloves, and calcium hydroxide (to help with absorption) usually follows a Maldivian meal. That is, I thought it was a dessert, so down the hatch a handful went.

Another afternoon wasted.

Food in the Maldives -  (1)

The warning notice should have been a red flag, but I still dared to try a thimble’s worth of khaini, ready-to-roll tobacco.  Who needs Amsterdam when the Maldives are ready to serve you; they’ve even just introduced a points system for frequent travelers, so watch out Sabena!.


Have you tried Maldivian cuisine?

If Food Had Passports: Guatemalan Cardamom

Source: https://qtradeteas.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/cardamom/
Source: Qtradeteas

Ever since I started raiding the breath freshener (and carminative) trays at Indian restaurants, I’ve been curious about cardamom.  Whereas my usual reason for diving into those trays was for the candy-coated fennel seeds, the inimitable aggressive and unique flavor of cardamom always stood out.  When else could I find the expensive pods in my food?  Atop biryanis, in milk and as a seasoning for teas.

And in Antigua, Guatemala, in chocolate:

Antigua, Guatemala - Cardamom Chocolate (2)Prior to World War I, German coffee farmer Oscar Majus Kloeffer introduced cardamom to the fertile soil of Alta Verapáz.  Guatemala is currently the world’s largest exporter of cardamom, though hardly uses it on the domestic front, save for adding it to bars of local chocolate much to the amusement of self-declared travel/food bloggers.  Most of it is shipped to the Middle East and India, the latter of which frequently expressing sour grapes over one of its native crops.

If you’re curious about the history of cardamom – a distant relative of my favorite root, ginger – visit the Western Ghats of India to discover its origin.


Are you a fan of cardamom?  Have you ever been to Guatemala?

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?

Chinese Desserts: Fried Mantou with Condensed Milk

When much of the world thinks of Chinese food, do bread, dairy and dessert often come to mind?  I’m not even referring to ingredients or dishes from hundreds or thousands of years ago, or Chinese restaurant kitchens adapted to local tastes.

My introduction to 馒头 (mán​tou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories.  In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab.  Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.

It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?

From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines.  However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.

Shenzhen, China- Fried Manotu with Condensed Milk

Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liàn​nǎi), or sweetened condensed milk.


Have you tried this combo before?  If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.

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!

Kabsa (كبسة), Saudi Arabia’s National Dish

While teaching in Jeddah, a couple of my students took particular interest in showing me around the region (which even included an impromptu trip to Mecca).  One weekend – Friday and Saturday, mind you – we went gallivanting around the austere cliffs and valleys of Taif, viewing some spectacular landscapes.  On the first night, they invited me to try the de facto Saudi national dish, kabsa.

Stemming from the Arabic word kabasaكبس)) meaning “to press/squeeze,” referring to all of its ingredients being squeezed into one pot, kabsa – or makboos (مكبوس), depending on where in the Gulf you are – consists of grilled meat, rice, onions, and a mélange of spices, served family-style.

Camel Kabsa in Taif, Saudi Arabia

To prepare kabsa, first, the meat – typically chicken, but lamb, shrimp, and camel are also common – is either cooked in deep holes in the ground (whose style is called mandi), or grilled over flaming stones (called mathbi).   Add in a blend of ingredients – namely, black pepper, cumin, dried powdered limes, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and saffron, for flavor and color.  Then, in a pot combine all of the above with long-grain/basmati rice.  Sometimes, you will find the finished product topped with slivers of almonds, fried onions, raisins, and pine nuts.

Kabsa is typically enjoyed while everyone is seated on the floor, using their right hands to scoop up a mix of the tender meat, rice, and fried onions.  Common accompaniments include hot sauce, pickles, a cucumber-yogurt sauce, a simple clear soup, and pita.


Have you tried kabsa/makboos?  If so, where?

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.