travel

turkey fish

My final post on Istanbul focuses on two of the aspects of Turkish food culture that I was really looking forward to enjoying: the incredibly fresh seafood and the historical markets. One of my favorite seafood dish was a sizzling shrimp casserole with mushrooms and onions, karides guvec. Julie and I tried it at many different places and each slight variation was still consistently comforting and flavorful.  The sophisticated spicing reminds me of the Silk Road, intermingling tastes the Middle East and Europe with a touch of India.

At restaurant 360, we indulged in a fabulous view of the Istanbul skyline and its equally glittering Beautiful People. To start we had circassian cheese-stuffed calamari – the thought of squid and cheese together was intriguing, and was actually a winning combination.

I had the sea bass which were perfectly grilled, just look at that char! I could have done without the lincoln log potatoes, though.

Aya had the mustard glazed salmon (sorry the picture is so iffy), a classic that was benefited from excellent technique.

Julie went more Turkish, successfully so: filet of dorade wrapped in vine leaves,  with grapes and raki sauce (the local anise-flavored liquor).

In the Kumkapi district along the Sea of Marmara are some the city’s best fish restaurants with the freshest seafood in town – here’s today’s catch at Fener restaurant. The fat roundish dorades are a white fish that tastes like snapper.

After choosing your fish, the preparation is elegantly simple to bring out its essence of the fish: scored, grilled, salt, and lemon.

Of course we couldn’t get enough of the shrimp casserole with its delicately spiced juices bursting with flavor from tomatoes and peppers – perfect for dipping hot crusty bread.

 

fresh juiceHeading over to the spice bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Market in Istanbul) you can’t help but linger at all the enticing food vendors offering fresh pomegranate juice…

 

roasted chestnutsor the ubiquitous hot roasted chestnuts.

 

spice bazaarOnce in the spice bazaar (a maze of tunnel-like galleries of stalls and shops), all of the spices and teas and dried fruits and nuts you stuffed your face with are awaiting your suitcase for the trip home.

spice bazaarPick out your favorite treats and the vendors weigh it, bag it, and vacuum-pack it into a little flat packet safe for your baggage.

spice bazaarRare and prized goods are easily available in the second oldest bazaar in the city – here since the 17th century.

spice bazaarIstanbul was the gateway to the Silk Road and it’s readily apparent in the bazaar overflowing with spices from all corners of the Middle East and Asia.

teasEverywhere you go as a tourist, you’ll be offered sweet and tart apple tea and beautiful blooming pomegranate tea. You can find both here along with maybe a hundred other kinds of tea that I’d never seen before.

buying turkish delightYou can get a selection of your favorite Turkish Delight cut to order.

spice bazaar treatsAnd along with other treats, goodies and sweets – you can find all your favorite Turkish flavors here in the spice bazaar (mine were pomegranate, pistachios, and rose).  The only thing that was missing was a Turkish cookbook to put it all together – luckily, I found a gorgeous and well-researched one right in the airport. Hopefully I can recreate some of the aromatic flavors of my favorite Turkish dishes and share them with you soon.

Did you miss the other posts on Istanbul food? You can find all the desserts you can handle here, and how to be a vegetarian in Turkey here.

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travel

vegetarian turkey

There are some parts of the world I worry about visiting. Not because of the crime, the crap weather, or the political instability – but simply because I wonder if I would find anything traditional to eat as a non- red or white meat eater. I’m not really a vegetarian (bring on the crab!) but I mostly eat that way. For a split second, I considered this potential obstacle when traveling to Turkey as I tend to think of all the permutations of kebabs and doner when I think of Turkish cuisine.  Luckily, I was so very, very wrong. Starting from the flight on Turkish airlines, I indulged in incredibly flavorful and sophisticated food that happened to also be vegetarian. Yeah, I even snuck out my cell phone camera to snap my  crispy colorful salad with salty fresh cheese on the flight to Istanbul.

The next course was a briny rice and nut stuffed dolma,  (non-veg smoked salmon), and delicately spiced lentil salad.

You want dessert but can’t decide amongst healthy fresh fruits, a light cheese plate or dainty pastries?  No worries, you’ll get all of the above.

For breakfast, we headed to the hotel’s breakfast bar in our PJs to fill up on lemony lentil soup, fruit yogurt, parsley and potato salad, fresh cheese with dill and parsley, cucumber and hard boiled egg, potato croquette,  Turkish pastry, toast with hazelnut/cocoa spread. Then we headed back up for a mid-morning nap. Ah, vacation.

A great mid-day snack that is easily available in Istanbul is the “Turkish pizza” – lahmacun.  Its a canoe-shaped pide (like a pita bread) with a thin layer of tomato sauce, cheese and herbs.

One of my favorite dishes was imam bayildi (“the imam fainted,” supposedly when he tasted this treat whipped up for him) which is grilled eggplant poached in olive oil with tomato and herbs and served at room temperature. The dish tastes like the essence of Mediterranean cooking – smoky, fresh, tart, and absolutely unctuous as the sweet olive oil should be dripping down your chin when you bite into it. Poaching in olive oil such that the oil is an integral part of the dish is a popular and traditional way to prepare vegetables especially for hot weather.

At any time, anywhere, you can dig into a fresh-fried plate of sigara borek for the perfect snack. Filled with salty cheese something like feta, these crisp snacks are named such because they resemble little cigars. We started many meals munching on them.

At a traditional Anatolian restaurant, women prepared these crepe-like flat breads on wide pans. This gozleme is filled with a thin layer of a spinach mixture. Julie and I thought of our last two dishes (the cigara and this gozleme) as Turkish taquitos and quesadilla.

Since we were visiting in winter, we looked forward to a hot not-too-heavy meal after a day of visiting mosques and palaces. Our favorite of the soup was this light but satisfying ezo gelin, a red lentil soup made with bulgar for heartiness, mint for a refreshing flavor, olive oil for richness, and served with fresh lemon for that perfect punch of tartness. Here, it is served with a gigantic pide to dip.

Mmmmm, ezo gelin red lentil soup with mint.

More snacks: Lay’s, I implore you to bring these chips with yogurt and herbs to American shores! I don’t even like potato chips, but these were unconscionably addictive because the flavor was so superior to sour cream and onion – less sour, less intense,  but with a wonderful tang. We brought some for the plane trip back to extend our trip as long as possible.

We did visit one fast food place – Simit Sarayi where you can duck in for a cup of apple tea and a simit, a sesame ring of bread similar to a bagel.  They are also a popular street snack, sold wrapped in newspaper from carts all over the city.

When I did eat as a vegetarian in Turkey, I was not disappointed with the quality or variety of fantastic Turkish veg options (and there were many more things to choose from at every spot, high end or street-side, like stuffed roasted tomatoes, eggs baked in tomato sauce, and mushroom and zucchini casseroles.)

However, let us not forget that Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait and edges into the Sea of Marmara, a nook off of the Mediterranean. So of course, next episode: seafood! Also, a swirl through the spice bazaar where I stocked up on pomegranate tea.

Did you miss the post on Istanbul’s desserts? Go into sugar-shock here.

travel

anatolia, byzantium and constantinople (not constantinople)

Two month hiatus! I’m not dead (I think?) – just traveling and now moving. Oh yes: a new place with a kitchen that has counters and outlets. That’s right, there’s more than one outlet in the general kitchen vicinity – I may go unnecessary appliance-crazy at a Williams Sonoma very soon.

This excitement has kept me away from posting delicious adventures, but I have a slew of posts coming up from some recent travels to Europe and Asia. Conveniently, Julie and I traveled to both in a single wonderful visit to continent-spanning bustling Istanbul. We brought our appetites, but what I should have brought was some insulin. Turks may be second to only Bengalis when it comes to sweet tooths!

There seemed to be 4 main categories of sweets, and the most beautiful were the dazzling pyramids of neon colored Turkish delight. They were kind of chewy, gummy, jelly sweets sometimes with nuts and sometimes with more fruit pieces.

 

I didn’t know about the many, many puddings that are popular here until my Turkish friend gave me a cheat sheet of what to order. At a dessert parlor like this they usually come topped with a very sweet fruit gelee that had more fruit or nuts in it.

 

Of course, what I did know about and was excited to have was authentic baklava. Turks perfected baklava in the royal kitchens of Topkapi Palace for the Ottoman Empire. Now they make it with almonds, walnuts, or pistachio and they come in a huge variety of shapes and textures (like shredded baklava) that I’d never have dreamt up.

 

Familiar Turkish flavors include the classic combination of pomegranate and pistachio.

 

Cutting a piece of Turkish delight for sampling.

 

Chocolate pudding with walnuts. The topping was like syrup: very very sweet.

 

Assorted baklavas and kaymak (a thick cream somewhere between clotted cream and sweet butter – so rich and divine!)

 

One of my favorite desserts was sutlac, a rice pudding with a scalded top crust. The beauty of Turkish rice pudding is that it is not overly sweet and thinner than Western and Indian counterparts. The burnt milk crust is caramelized and chewy – definitely the best part and you want to include a bit of it with every bite.

 

At a more fancy-pants place we had rose sorbet, local fruits and of course pomegranate. Rose is a popular flavor for a lot of desserts and was wonderfully aromatic and light against the tartness of pomegranate.

 

The final type of dessert we discovered was the heavenly confection known as dondurma: Turkish ice cream. Why this hasn’t been introduced to the US is beyond me because it is amazing! The ice cream is rich and dense, like gelato, but has a slightly chewy texture that is almost like ice-cream taffy. Some dondurmas are so chewy you need a knife and fork. They use a tree resin called mastic and a flour made from the root of orchids called salep to impart the chewiness. The flavors are somehow more intense and creamy – Julie and I ended up eating some dondurma every night despite the freezing winter temperatures, we were addicted.

 

Our drug supplier: MADO. A chain ice cream/dessert parlor with amazing dondurma. The waiters there watched us try out practically everything on the whole menu over the course of our trip. Here, chocolate dondurma over kazandibi – another lightly sweet, almost caramel-tasting burnt milk pudding.

 

Even the Turkish candy bars were fantastic. The Albeni bar, with its deep chocolate cake and runny caramel enrobed in chocolate, was decadence in crinkly wrapping.

 

For those 5pm hypoglycemic episodes after sightseeing all day, nothing hit the spot like this Bolero. The squares of crisp wafer layers were like a Kit Kat but with exceptional chocolate-hazelnut filling. Welcome to Istanbul, I hope you brought your insulin.

travel

i should cocoa eats

Happy new year, happy new eats, happy new cooks, happy new friends, happy new loves, happy new travels, happy new markets, happy new fails, happy new treats, happy new experiments, happy new tastes, happy new homes, happy new cheer.

From greasy spoon mom-n-pop dives to Michelin-starred fancypants destinations, I present the I Should Cocoa! Eats map. Since mostly my 2 friends check this out: here are all those places I’ve been telling you about. Ones to avoid, ones to give a shot, and ones you can’t miss. Continuously updated (tons more than what shows up in the image above – click on the link above and don’t forget page 2!) there’s a lot of good eats packed in here. Happy eating!

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sf street eats

What did I say? The SF Underground Market is the worst-kept secret for a secret underground market, and now it’s been shut down by the health inspector for not being secretive enough. It’s a shame, I truly hope the good folks over at SF Forage can find an alternative route to feeding our gaping maws with delightful treats from Bay area upstarts. Fortunately, I was there at the very last market in June.  My bestie Julie was visiting and we pretty much ate our way through the city, stopping at the market during the day when it was wonderfully less busy but still vibrant and drool-enducing.

We started with fabulous veggie tamales from Tamales Oaxaca.  They were moist and dense with a perfect amount of cheese in the veggie filling.  Topped with a refreshing slaw and not-too-spicy salsa, these were satisfying and packed with flavor.

I can’t speak highly enough of the amazing – AMAZING – hand held (or shirt-pocket) pies from Desperation Bakehouse. This was their first (and unfortunately last) foray to the market, and they came with guns a-blazing. Julie and I tried a savory and a sweet pie – the English pea puree pie and strawberry and lemon pie. The pea puree was sweet, herby, and vegetal with a hearty but flaky crust. The crust is what really made these pies perfect, not too light to become dust but not overly chewy and dense – these were like the golden crust of a Southern biscuit yielding to a buttery rich crumb underneath. The strawberry and lemon pie was a revelation – the balance of sweet and tart was brilliant, and the sugar-studded crust wasn’t overly sweet but had a nice crunch.  I was so enamored of them, I went back and bought two more for Adam and B for later that night because they HAD to taste these.

We were happy and full, but we didn’t stop. Oh, no. And I’m so glad that we pushed our gut to the limit because we definitely, definitely needed to have the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Milk flavored frozen custard from frozen kuhsterd. In one moment, I was a blissed out kid watching Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of milk leftover from that particularly wonderful sugar-bomb cereal. Oh, and did we want to add some of that not-quite-cinnamon, not-quite-toast but definitely crunchy cereal to the top of our custard? Hell yeah we did! Oh, SF underground market, you bring me such delight and I can’t wait for you to come back to us in whatever way is possible.

The night before, we had made our way to Fort Mason for the largest weekly gathering of Off the Grid SF, a street party with the best local food trucks.  It was chilly and packed with hungry hordes of foodies and photographers, with live music, beer, and beautiful people checking out what everyone else is eating. It was rather dark to take photos, so I didn’t get to capture the revelatory croissant-like buttery and flaky wild mushroom empanada from El Porteno, but trust – it was glorious.  And we didn’t have the patience to stand in the ridiculously long lines for Korean tacos and Indian burritos (this time). But we did try out the curious call of Hawaiian-Chinese-pan-Asian food at IZ IT.  Julie had the tofu musubi, a non-greasy crisply fried (panko-breaded?) tofu with rice and wrapped in seaweed. Usually I only see spam musubi, so the fact they had tofu was awesome, but even better was that the tofu was packed with flavor and had obviously been marinaded in some delicious sauce.

I had the same crisp fried, savory tofu over lettuce with hot sauce and refreshing cucumber as a sort of Hawaiian/Japanese/Mexican taco fusion thing. I don’t know how to categorize it but the flavors were on point.

We have to start the way we finished, so another tamal at hand, this one from Chaac-Mool. They served up a ginormous moist and dare I say fluffy tamal with spinach and cheese and whole corn.  Topped with piquant salsa and dusted with more queso, it was really filling and very flavorful.  Tummies sated, we reverted to our happy places – shoulder to shoulder with other good-food hunters, bracing against the chill of the San Francisco bay wind.

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Mercat: the revenge of the windy city

I am so excited to have guest-blogged the final part of our Chicago trip at Twilight at Morningside, a gorgeous photography + food blog by my dear friend Liz. You don’t think all of this gut-busting gluttony in Chicago could be without consequence, do you? Our fearsome foursome met our match at a post-Girl & the Goat brunch at Jose Garces’ Mercat a la Planxa that was the very essence of overdoing it. Read all about our shenanigans over at Twilight and browse through Liz’s beautiful photos on food, travel, and design ‘back East.

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this girl and girl and the goat

Our next foodventure in Chicago was a visit to Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat.  Selina had heard delightful things about this new restaurant and booked reservations months ahead of time, while I anticipated this meal with unabashed glee as I was a big fan of Izard’s ever since Top Chef.  A meal this epic required expert eaters, so our friend Adam, a guaranteed overachiever in this field, joined us three for the evening of overindulgence. We started at 5.30 (even with reservations months in advance!) and ended a mere 3+ hours later with satisfied stomachs and bulging beltlines.  Without a doubt, one of the best meals I have ever had, even though I couldn’t try everything.

Yes, there will be goat.  I loved the servers’ t-shirts that said “Don’t feed the goat, but beer is okay.”

Even at the early-bird special time of 5.30pm the restaurant was busy with folks pondering the menu at the beautiful wood bar.

Chef Izard expediting at the bustling open kitchen.

Our menu: marked, edited, and underlined. The server did a fantastic job of describing what would be a meal of small plates shared at the table, which dishes he could make pescatarian for me and which ones he didn’t recommend altering.  After all of our orders were in, he then choregraphed the meal to smoothly sail from light to heavy.  After encouraging our party of four to order eight or nine items, he didn’t bat an eye when we ordered eleven…and then two more dishes at the end…and the entire dessert menu.  Then he presented us the menu as a souvenir.

To start, a rustic and earthy fresh baked loaf of bread with house cultured butter and a ripe and creamy concoction known as beer cheese sauce.  Like fondue distilled to an intense essence, a fantastic way to start off the meal, and a great accompaniment to the complex and delicious cocktails prepared at the bar.

Wood fired Tomahawk oysters with bits of artichoke, green garlic and bacon.  As an oyster non-fan, I will humbly attest to their wonderful plump, briny flavor highlighted perfectly in this elegant dish.

Adam’s favorite was the lamb tartar, with an English pea tapenade and tuna aioli.  He found the unique twist on the traditional tartar refreshing.

My favorite was the chickpea fritters with romesco, hazelnut hummus, sesame, and goat feta.  The delicately fried fritters were light and crisp with a creamy center like fried tofu.  All of the flavors melded together wonderfully.

The wood fired razor clams were dressed with peanuts, chili,and sweet garlic which seemed at the time like an odd combination. Peanuts and clams? Sounds quite discordant.  In actuality, the Southeast Asian flavors worked really well and the sauce was delectable – the clams just ended up a bit over cooked and chewy.

The kabocha squash ravioli with mushroom raisin ragu, brussels leaves, and mushroom creme fraiche sounded like a vegetarian delight on paper. In reality this was thought to be the least successful dish for being surprisingly bland, and I for one am opposed to raisins in general (except Raisin Bran and oatmeal cookies).

The roasted halibut with brandade, grilled asparagus, green garlic, and blackberry was finished lickety split, however.  The fish was perfectly tender with a crisp sear, and the different textures were a revelation in palate pleasing flavor.

Our table decided to go with the goat belly confit for our goat dish, in this case accompanied by bourbon butter with lobster and crab,  and fennel.  B was a fan of this dish, with the gameyness of goat offset by intense flavor from its preparation as confit and paired luxuriously with the richness of lobster and butter.

Selina convinced the table to order the wood oven roasted pig face, blanketed by a sunnyside egg, cilantro, and potato stix.  After overcoming the initial disappointment/relief that it didn’t look like a cute piggy face staring back at us, the consensus was that it was actually pretty darn good. Although I do not condone eating faces, anything is enticing with an egg on top.

The dinosaur-sized pork shank with truffled apples and truffle tapenade was a savory meat-fest.  Although the presentation was awe-inducing, it didn’t end up on anyone’s favorite list, so we couldn’t end the meal there. Thus, we decided to order up two more dishes.

We were assured by our server that the cauliflower was a fan favorite, with pickled peppers, pine nuts, and mint.  It was simple and homey, yet surprising with the pickles – it tasted almost like a chutney to aloo gobi curry.

We ended on perhaps the lightest note, a refreshing palate cleanser of hiramasa crudo with aji chili and caperberries.  The fish was delicate, pleasant, and lightly dressed yet full of astounding flavor. I’m so glad we ended the dinner portion with this dish as its simplicity belied the balancing act of flavor that made it one of my favorites.

Onto dessert, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.  A simple mason jar, with fluffy cream, cake, crumbs and fruit.

My favorite dessert, the rhubarb n’ lemon: a trifle of shortcake, buttermilk pannacotta, lemon gelato, and salted graham cracker.  I could eat these sitting in a rocking chair out on the porch on a hot day, all day.

Next up, the blood orange sorbet with the ingenious parnsip pot de creme, under a pistachio cake with cornmeal crust.  We had a parsnip flan at Crush in Seattle, who knew it could lend itself to a complex, yet ultimately successful dessert? The other desserts similarly played around with a distinctly vegetal or savory component to counter the sweet.

For example, the bittersweet chocolate cake was topped with shiitake gelato and toffee creme fraiche.  Selina thought this to be the best chocolate cake ever, deeply intense in chocolate flavor yet fragile and airy in texture.  The shiitake gelato, with its earthy foresty tones actually worked quite well to balance what could have been a cloyingly sweet dessert.

Lastly, the pork fat donuts with sesame semifreddo and sambal pineapple.  I asked my table-mates if the donuts were sweet or bacony. Their reply – “oh. my. gahhhhhh….the donuts are sweet and soooo good, and also porky.” Porky. Kind of like a sweet maple fritter fried up in leftover bacon fat. Salty, animal-y, but not quite savory. Porky – there’s really no other way to describe them. Or us, by the end of the meal.

travel

i should (and have) xoco

My recent food-drenched visit to see Selina in Chicago starts with a stop at San Francisco Airport’s newly renovated stylish, airy, light-filled and green Terminal 2. With gourmet fare from Tyler Florence at Napa Farms Market and Lark Creek Grill, you can pre-game your squished coach-seat red-eye journey with upgraded cuisine.  We headed to Cat Cora’s lounge, which serves small plates and that all-important pre-flight cocktail. B tried the slider trio, each burger made with lamb, pork (sloppy-joe style) or Wagyu beef, and served with sweet potato fries.  It’s certainly one way to eat all of the animals at the same time.  He thought the beef was the most juicy and delicious, the lamb too dry, and the pork just as messy to eat as it would appear to be.

I had the sourdough grilled cheese and tomato soup with microgreens – although it sounds quite boring the soup was rich and flavorful with a hearty texture.  And you can’t really go wrong with grilled cheese, and in this case the smoky flavor infused into the crispy sourdough added a great complexity.

Our first night we met up with Selina at one of Chicago’s most well known and beloved restaurants, Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill.  First up, at the dramatic and Mexican folk-art filled bar – a signature margarita, of course! I first had a margarita from Bayless’ recipe handcrafted by a former supervisor who swore by them.  I admit that although he wasn’t always the easiest person to work with, those margaritas endeared him to me thoroughly.

Certainly in California we are lucky that authentic and delicious Mexican food is rather ubiquitous, especially in southern California where B grew up spoiled with this indulgence.  Even so, it was with great interest and curiosity that we made our way through the regional Mexican menu, but in the moody lighting not everything photographed so well.  Some highlights: flaky, crispy mushroom empanadas

Gooey melty queso fundido with carnitas:

Selina had the duck breast with Brussels sprouts – this particular vegetable being a recurring theme in much of our meals in Chicago.  We couldn’t figure out the source of the Brussels sprout epidemic afflicting the area’s chefs but thankfully they are tasty.

The following morning, we walked next door to Bayless’ Xoco, a casual Mexican sandwich/street food cafe to continue the feast.  Now, I may have picked our hotel to be within walking distance of Xoco so that we could eat here every morning if we wanted – so what, don’t judge me.  Although dinner at Frontera was good, I really had my hopes up for breakfast when greeted by these colorful beauties:

You can get food to go or have it brought to the communal table or window-watching breakfast bar.  Limonadas in hand, we had pre-breakfast breakfast – B with a perfectly golden ham and cheese empanada:

and I with a glittering airy churro and decadent freshly ground Mexican chocolate:

We each had an open-faced breakfast torta with a spicy tomato sauce, black bean spread, and a poached egg. It was a bit tough to cut, but was reminiscent of my prior dinner post in a delicious and satisfying way.

Over the next few days, much more eating was done (with great distress to our ever-stretching stomachs) so this post is to be continued…

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underground finds

 

SF underground market

The SF Underground Market is the city’s worst-kept secret.  About once a month, some of the bay area’s artisans of edible crafts get together and throw a party. The scene, filled with music and cookery aromas, is packed to the gills with people grazing between vendors’ stalls.  The vendors sell take-home products by day and cook up hot food and desserts by night.  Sounds like a farmer’s market, so why underground? Well, these vendors have been honing their craft in home kitchens or are just getting their business off the ground.  Without a commercial kitchen or a health inspector, you’re exploring the tasty nibbles of a secret San Francisco.  Except, it’s not very secret with lines around the block during all hours of the event and some vendors hitting it big with pop-up restaurants, food trucks and more.  Still, for that moment, it’s just you and a few hundred food-loving explorers, tummies full of beer, cheer and nosh, happily bumping into each other with plated bites, peering at what good finds the person next to you scored.

B didn’t have much to say about this chicken empanada, but he did scarf it down – tamalenation

The mac n’ cheese  with mascarpone and other cheeses was beautifully golden and had a great crust, and was very creamy. I missed the sharpness of cheddar, though – baia pasta

The longest line in the house was for a chef freshly cooking up four simultaneous pans of duck confit gnocchi with cherries and duck jus, a beautiful thing to behold.  At $5 a bowl, truly the best deal of the night even though B couldn’t taste the duck – sf delicious

I’ve never before had this made-to-order Vietnamese shrimp and bean sprout crepe, and although I found it a bit mushy, the flavors were divine – little knock

Not just any Belgian waffle, this authentic Liège waffle has the sweet, chewy crust from the honking balls of pearl sugar in the batter.  This…this was amazing – Suite Foods

The scene below: cooking up dumplings and burgers (in matching aprons!) and waiting in line for not-so-secret snacks.

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gallo pinto and queso frito

Can you imagine waking up to this little bounty every morning? How about in 80 degree weather where the sun never stops shining? Ah, Nicaragua. Meeting up with Max and Monisha in Nicaragua was the best cure for the mid-winter blues.  Having spent part of of our trip in the rustic island of Ometepe and part in the beautiful colonial town of Granada, I got to eat some simple authentic meals as well as gourmet sophisticated fare. However, the best meal every day was breakfast. In this typical Nicaraguan breakfast, perfectly cooked eggs with fresh salsa, bananas, and fried potatoes were served with gallo pinto (garlicky red beans and rice), maduros (sweet, ripe plantains), and my favorite – queso frito (fried cheese). How can you go wrong with fried cheese? It is chewy and salty and holds its texture well to the heat, much like Cypriot halloumi, and when asked what kind of cheese they were frying up for us the answer was always…uh, Nicaraguan cheese? Of course.

Mid-day through evening, most of our calories came thirst-refreshing Nicaraguan beer. Don’t have a favorite? No matter, they’re all brewed by the same company anyway.

In Granada, a wealth of traditional and international cuisines awaited us. At El Tranvia in the Hotel Dario, you can eat Caribbean inspired cuisine in a beautiful Spanish colonial courtyard filled with tropical plants and flowers. I had the roasted tomato and snapper over fresh vegetables served with a slice of traditional Spanish omelet. I’d never think to pair fish with the potato and egg omelet, but it seems so obvious now.

At Mediterraneo, we were serenaded by troubadours while lingering over more fresh seafood. B indulged in the rich Nicaraguan lobsters caught off the Caribbean coast. He didn’t even have to work hard as they came cracked and de-shelled.

Our last evening’s meal was by far the most memorable. In a dirt-floored fluorescent-lit open-aired joint, we were told by those in-the-know to order the guapote sin espina. We didn’t know what we were in for: a whole bass-like fish, deboned, fried and topped with onions, peppers, tomato and lime. Served alongside tostones (fried green plantains) with queso frito (score!) it was the perfect meal. Halfway through digging at the tender, juicy fish with our forks, we asked – should we order another? That good. Where are you guapote? I miss you already.