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Monday, March 2, 2009

Taste Trippin'

Although most of my trips are scheduled, sometimes I like to fly off with spur- of -the minute jaunts. This weekend, I dashed off to Jamaica, Cuba and Peru with a quick detour to Spain. Instead of feeling strangled with jet lag, I feel full, very full. That's because my trips involved a visit to my favorite Nuevo Latino/Caribbean eatery, Cuatro. I started out with a visit to Spain, sipping on a white wine sangria sprinkled with berries. I'm a lightweight drinker and it almost knocked me out so I traveled to Peru, for a devine ceviche with hearts of palm, avocado and whitefish. For my main excursion, I tripped over to Jamaica and Brazil for jerk chicken drenched in tamarind sauce and spicy morros y christanos accented with plantanos. Meanwhile, my traveling companions ventured into Brazil for my favorite moqueca, which I was too stuffed to sample. It was a satisfying journey that almost completely transported me, except for the good old Chicago house music that blasted a reminder that I was still at home.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Chocolate Travels

From salsa-tinged Humboldt Park, to jollof rice-scented Uptown, Chicago offers some great cultural experiences. You don't have to hop a plane to absorb some of the sensations of India, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Nigeria. Although I love the neighborhoods that supply these escapades, I have to admit that one of my favorite Chicago cultural experiences doesn't involve an actual area or just one culture. Katrina, the genius/diva behind Chicago-based Vosges Haut Chocolat, combines her love of world travel and sustainable chocolate so seemlessly that I swear I didn't notice that I was munching on candy that represented my favorite places until last week. I stop into the purple swathed (always a good sign) Vosges boutiques about once every 6 weeks to stock up on my fave $7-$8 chocolate bars. They happen to be deep milk chocolate and smoked almonds sprinkled with fleur de sel grey sea salt, for the Barcelona bar. Then there's the dark chocolate spiked with Mexican ancho and chipotle chillis, topped with Ceylon cinnamon for the Red Fire bar. Last week, I discovered the addictive crunch of Ecuadorian plantain chips in deep milk chocolate of the Habana bar. Each bar conjures up a heady, sensual explosion of flavor. Each bar also represents places that I either already travel to frequently (Mexico) or have longed to visit (Barcelona, Havana). A coincidence? I don't think so. Traveling through chocolate is one sweet escape that I can't stand to miss.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Flying Fish, Saltfish Soup and Kingfish Ceviche

Caribbean cuisine is one of my favorites. I love spicy flavors, exotic combinations and anything accented with tropical fruit. Most island dishes offer that and more. So I was looking forward to sampling Bajan food, to say the least. I did have a fleeting experience with the Bajan staple flying fish, years ago. My former mother-in-law, a Tobago matriarch, enthralled by the recent popularity of the fish in Tobago, insisted that I smuggle frozen flying fish in my luggage on the eight-hour flight back to Chicago. But that's another story. Barbados is called "land of the flying fish" for good reason. They are everywhere. Popping up on little pectoral fins in the harbors, decorating Bajan coins and the coat of arms, flying fish are part of Bajan life. And they are truly a part of the daily cuisine. The national dish is flying fish and cou cou, which is a cornmeal side dish called fungi on other islands and polenta in Italy. Succulent and slightly oily, flying fish was featured at every restaurant and every event that I attended. I ate it fried, steamed and baked. It was offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I estimate that I ate flying fish at least two times a day during my Barbados stay. The fish is tasty and highly flavorful but if I never have it again, I won't be upset.

Besides the flying fish, I discovered that Bajan cuisine can be innovative. At the Waterfront Cafe, nestled along the Bridgetown marina, I sampled a tasty saltfish soup. Saltfish or salted cod, is another Caribbean mainstay that I love but I had never seen it featured in a soup. It was rich and only slightly salty. I preferred it to the king fish ceviche which was heavy on innovation as well as lime. The acid from the limes and vinegar made it hard to stomach after awhile. At Brown Sugar, a landmark Bajan restaurant, I tried the popular lunch buffet amid a gurgling fountain and lush greenery. The buffet provided other popular Bajan dishes like macaroni pie, lamb stew, banana salad and of course, flying fish stewed and fried.

For me, local cuisine represents an important part of the travel experience. It gives you insight into the culture. So I typically ignore any element of fast food or Americanized offerings like pizza, burgers or hot dogs. But Barbados has it's own fast food eatery that's as much a part of the culture as McDonald's is part of American culture. The purple and yellow sign for Chefette greeted me in every Bajan town that I journeyed to. I saw one in the airport, I observed one in downtown Bridgetown, one across from the famous Oistin's fish fry and they were always crowded. So I ventured in to see if it was different from American fast food places. Aside from the British reference of chips for fries, I saw the familiar fried chicken, burgers and chicken nuggets. On closer inspection, I found that roti, with "genuine curry directly from India" was prominently displayed on the menu. Roti is a popular tortilla-like wrap of curried chicken and potatoes brought with the Indian workers that flooded British Caribbean colonies after slavery was abolished. I also spotted mauby, a bitter drink made from tree bark and herbs that's another Caribbean staple. Even with fast food, the innovative Bajan flavor remains.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Tasty Cultural Connections

Brazilian culture overflows with rich African cultural connections and in Bahia, you can taste as well as see it. I explored classic Brazilian dishes spiced with African influences in a post for Galavanting Magazine's travel blog here but I didn't explain the depth of the Nigerian influence on acaraje. Eating acaraje is practically a legal requirement when you visit Salvador. In London, you must nibble fish and chips, dripping with grease and wrapped in paper. In Jamaica, you must savor ackee and saltfish cooled with sea breezes. And in Salvador, you must buy acaraje from a Baiana de acaraje, on the cobble-stoned streets with samba rhythms blasting through the air.

Acaraje is a black-eyed pea fritter fried in palm oil. Typically, it's cut in half and topped with caruru, an okra stew, vatapa a mixture blended with dried shrimp, cashews, peanuts and coconut milk and a salad made of chopped tomatoes and onions. Peppery and laden with fat, it is the quintessential Brazilian fast food. In Nigeria, it is also a popular snack and breakfast staple called akara. The je on the Brazilian term simply means to eat so the dish is a direct transport from West African culture, where it is prepared similarly. Baiana de acaraje's, serving up these delicacies wearing white laced dresses and buoyant head wraps called torsos, underscore the Nigerian element even more. If you've ever seen a Yoruba woman parading in her finery, you've seen the essence of Baianas de acraje's legendary grace. A considerable portion of Brazil's population trace their heritage to Nigeria and other Western African countries. Acaraje highlights those roots with tasty flavor. A special shout out to Floyd for reminding me about these points!

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