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.
Mexico, thus far, is one of my three favorite countries in which to eat –the other two being Japan and Turkey. During my brief time in Southern California, I used to cross over to Tijuana just to get a series of lunches, and then overdo it by chomping on churros while waiting to get back in the US.
After meeting some affable Mexican folks in my travels, my awareness of regional Mexican cuisines grew, as we started taking road trips throughout their delicious country. I will cover more of these stories in later posts, but for now, we’re going to take a look at the tlayuda, the Oaxacan specialty that might count pizza as a distant relative…all the way in Italy.
Tlayuda are eaten either with granulated sugar, or with any number of savory ingredients…
Time for the good stuff! Savory tlayuda are first, smothered in a mix of refried beans and pork lard, the latter called asiento. Then…whatever! For the one above, I ordered it with ground chorizo, squash blossoms, quesillo (Oaxaca cheese; roughly similar to mozzarella), radishes, avocados, tomatoes, and a couple of flora unique to the region.
On the left, the green pod (and its seeds) is called guaje. Although the pod is inedible, the seeds have an eclectic flavor profile, something of a grassy pumpkin seed. More importantly, the guaje, being plentiful in the region during the time of Cortés, lent present-day Oaxaca its name. Since the Spanish couldn’t pronounce Huāxyacac, the Nahuatl word for the plant, they abridged it to become Oaxaca. So much easier, right???
And on the right, pipicha, or chepiche. Does it bear a striking resemblance to tarragon? Yes…but the flavor is more like a citrus cilantro, with a hint of minty licorice. Used by Aztecs and other ancient tribes to treat the liver, pipicha also are high in antioxidants, and can be used to cleanse the palate after a meal. I felt that the flavor was quite strong, so I would recommend using it sparingly.
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?
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.
That said, here’s when I had a generally good sense of what I ordered:
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.
The server knew me well.
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?
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!
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:
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.
My introduction to 馒头 (mántou), 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.
Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liànnǎi), or sweetened condensedmilk.
Have you tried this combo before? If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.
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.