Category Archives: Travel

Home and other places

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

Ginger Beer in Sydney

I’ve been to maybe half-a-dozen tastings in my life. A flight of whiskies at a Scottish distillery; a beer sampler at a brewery in Sydney; and a couple of cellar-door wine evenings.

Most of them have been shambolic affairs, although there’s a pattern to them. At first everyone’s a gourmand, sincere about the early vanillin note on this one and the woodruff aftertaste on that one. But after you’ve gone through 10 or 12 varieties of shiraz, it’s a bit different. Your teeth are redder than a betel addict’s, everything tastes like second-hand tea leaves, and you might as well have gone to the pub.

I’m hoping this one will be a little different, partly because it’s ginger beer on show tonight … Read the rest

Delicious, Flaky Pastries Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

Burek in Dubrovnik

Ottawa, 1989.

When we were children, my grandmother, Mariette Setton, would take the Voyageur bus from Montreal to stay with us. These trips happened about once a month, and I loved them.

Grandma would take us all to the fast food joint of our choice, stuff us with grease, and then spend the weekend telling us how wonderful we were compared to our father when he was our age, back in Egypt, the old country they had fled in the 50s as very unwelcome Jews.

When not stroking our egos, grandma would spend most of the weekend making “cheese bits” and “spinach bits.” There was a routine to this.
First, she complained that she had to work all weekend like the Hebrews of … Read the rest

A Close Encounter With a Monk and a Chocolate Muffin

A muffin in Laos

We woke to the bang-clang of metal against metal. The tak bat had begun.

My husband and I slipped out of bed and into shoes. We left the hotel room door open, just so, to the street, but prayed our small son would continue to sleep as the meditative procession of monks started to move through Luang Prabang.

Dawn after dawn, the faithful feed the faithful. Orange-robed monks walk barefoot and single file. They receive handfuls of sticky rice, fruit, incense, and sweets from men and women who sit or kneel, shoeless and sashed, along the route. No one speaks.

The daily Buddhist ritual of almsgiving knits the community together, as it has for hundreds of years. Pots full of food let … Read the rest

Always Eat the Fish Eye At the Bottom of the Bowl

Fish broth in Barranquilla

It’s Carnival in Barranquilla. There are marimondas, negritas Puloy, ITALgarabatos, monocucos, and many other traditional figures joyfully wandering in every street. There is dancing in all the ways the locals know: cumbia, mapalé, chandé, fandango, porro, merecumbé, bullerenge. There are kids, adults, pets, houses, and cars dressed up in colorful costumes.

A very well-organized recocha (which Urban Dictionary defines as “to be disorderly in the name of fun”) reigns in the town. There also is, of course, lots of alcohol involved. It’s been like that for more than a century, so the mayor and the police have agreed to make an exception from the recent national law that forbids the consumption of … Read the rest

From Feeding Gods in the Temple to Mortals in the City

My favorite place to eat in Mumbai is A. Rama Nayak’s Udupi Sri Krishna Boarding, a real mouthful of a name for a simple place. Set in a leafy South Indian enclave called King’s Circle, Rama Nayak’s occupies a pair of bright, breezy rooms up a flight of stairs in a nondescript building next to the Matunga Central railway station. Crowded, Formica-topped tables flank narrow aisles patrolled by a small army of lungi-clad kitchen attendants who ladle food relentlessly from small metal pails onto banana-leaf plates until you tell them to please-god-stop.

The food is simple, unchanged since the restaurant first opened its doors in 1942. Set lunches and dinners rotate through the week. You’ll get chutneys and bright-red mango pickle and a little … Read the rest

The Universal Struggle to Get to the Bar Before Happy Hour Ends

Wine in Amman

It is 5 p.m. in Amman, and I’m frantically dialing my bank in Pakistan to complain why a transfer hasn’t gone through. My Urdu seems accented and strange, as if I haven’t spent most of my life speaking the language.

I rush out of the house. It’s a Thursday night, the start of the weekend, and I want the same ritual as that of people working in offices everywhere–to get a drink. I emerge to the beginnings of rain, and shrug on a jacket and wrap my head in a scarf. It’s April, and yet I am still dressing like early winter.

I almost run to the stop for servees cabs: the shared-taxi service that runs in older Amman neighborhoods. There’s a queue … Read the rest

Fresh, Ripe Tomatoes: the Culinary Opposite of Airport Curries

Breakfast in Cyprus

As the rosy-red flesh of tomatoes basked in the light streaming through the stone-and-timber window frame, I could sense Karen’s reluctance as she mentally prepared herself for that first bite.

Less than 48 hours earlier we were in the U.K., slack jaws mechanically processing a lukewarm airport curry, a flaccid coda to our exploration of Scotland’s bonnie but slightly stodgy shores.

The tiny, cobblestoned village of Vavla, in Cyprus, was our new home, and we were hoping for something, anything, to resuscitate our neglected taste buds.

Over mugs of hot coffee, we could hear our hosts Donna Marie and George nattering back and forth in the kitchen; she with her Yankee drawl, rusty from disuse, he with his thick, gravelly, Greek-inflected English sporadically … Read the rest

Diamonds Aren’t Forever

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TEMBO, Democratic Republic of Congo—

As the truncated rat cooks in the fire, its body slowly roasting over the smoldering logs, 30-odd diggers stand around in the sweltering midday sun. Some break boulders at the bottom of a 50-foot pit in a dry riverbed, trying to access the gravel beneath, which they hope holds hidden wealth. Others watch, talk or take shelter from the heat.

A mile upstream, the divers try their luck. In ragged, re-stitched wetsuits, young men resurface every few minutes, heaving sacks of earth from the riverbed into the hands of helpers on a patchwork flotilla of multicolored dinghies. The boats are as close to the Angolan side of the river as can be, tethered to Congo by 50-foot ropes and pale hosepipes … Read the rest

When Living in a World of Absurdities, Try Whisky

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South Africa’s largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 was feted as a “miracle,” yet 23 years later, we are not Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow children”: race and class tensions bubble on the surface, often popping angrily into the nation’s eye like blobs of fat from a frying pork sausage.

The country’s new constitution is considered one of the most progressive globally, but the scandal-ridden administration of President Jacob Zuma appears increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional. Zuma has also set up a shadow state of spies and intelligence networks while the repressive policing of grassroots communities who organize politically is pervasive.

These are the things we live with, but often try to drink away.

Drinking is something that South Africans—according to the World Health Organization, the … Read the rest

Ah, to Be Handed Deep-Fried Pork Skin by a Kind Stranger

Carnitas in Mexico City

The Mercado de Medellín feels like an open-air market stuffed inside an aircraft hangar. Whole baby sharks sit on ice, arranged artfully among freshly caught shrimp and starfish. Stall shelves are covered with neatly arranged apples, watermelon, plantains, and cartons of strawberries—the same brand I buy back home in Wisconsin. An entire wing is dedicated to flowers: fiery red lirios (lilies) and delicate gipsófila (baby’s breath).

The market is a cross-section of Mexico City culture, along the intersection of the traditional Roma Sur and hip Roma Norte neighborhoods. During the week it’s a sleepy, sensible grocery store. Saturday mornings are a different story.

Carnitas?”

By mid-afternoon on Friday, I had seen the carnitas vendors already beginning to set up: sharpening … Read the rest

The Keeper of the Golden Keys

Through the cavernous lounge, where ladies with taut faces and tight Chanel jackets gossip over dainty sandwiches; past stiff-backed waiters, skirting around sherry-stupefied old men; and beyond the purplish Doric columns that flank the baroque lobby, Borja Martin Guridi stands behind an ornate hardwood desk. He is the head concierge at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid: the man charged with helping guests satisfy any (legal) desire.

Dressed in a gray suit with his hair combed back in a sweep of brown, Martin is clean shaven and fresh-faced, almost boyish in spite of his 42 years. But his youthfulness and energy belie his experience. Through his job, Martin has met more film stars and shaken the hands of more heads of state than almost anyone in … Read the rest

Pretty Much the Most Heartwarming Story About Shit-on-a-Shingle You’re Likely to Hear

Biscuits and gravy in Portland

Biscuits and gravy may be a bastion of Southern cuisine, but they have also been embraced in Portland, Oregon, the land of brunch lines and culinary trend-spotting.

Everywhere from greasy dive bars like The Trap to Instagrammy critical-darling Tusk has it on the menu. People queue up for an hour to order it at Screen Door. As a 4th-generation Portland native and historian of both breakfast and Portland’s culinary scene, I intimately understand the fuss.

I grew up below the poverty line, the firstborn to two ex-military kids on the cusp of their twenties. My mom had herself been the firstborn to two teenaged parents from Oklahoma, and her childhood had seen struggle.

Between her role as Alpha Sister to four … Read the rest

The Surreal Historical Coincidences of Today’s Berlin, Plus Beer

Beers in Berlin

Berliners are moths to the light, unanimously drawn outside by the first rays of sun. Joining the congregation, I grab a beer from the Spätkauf, the term for the iconic convenience stores run by cheerful Turkish men that speckle Berlin’s street corners. In summer, the stores become the city’s most vital institution, providing cheap, cold beer on warm afternoons.

I’m on my way to Tempelhof, to where the sky is wide open. Once an airport, the field is now Berlin’s biggest park, a flat grassy expanse that stretches the entirety of a city suburb. Completely cleared with two huge concrete runways rolling down the center, the area has changed little since the airport’s closure.

Riding down wide streets, I follow the curve of … Read the rest