Ethiopian Breakfast: Chechebsa (Kita Firfir)

Addis Ababa - Chechebsa

Chechebsa, or kita firfir, (in Amharic, ቂጣ ፍርፍር ጨጨብሳ)  is a breakfast food hailing from Ethiopia.

Chechebsa’s primary ingredient is teff, a grain nearly the size of a poppy seed, which comes from present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Teff is used to make injera, the sour spongy bread ubiquitous in Ethiopian restaurants throughout the world.

In this dish, teff is used to prepare kita, a bread similar to chapati, which also happens to contain the Ethiopian spice blend berbere, as well as niter kibbe, or clarified butter (ghee); ghee just refers to butter in which all of the water has been strained.  Then, it’s all fried, chopped up, and placed in bowl, ready to fill up any unsuspecting ferenji (foreigner).

Although some versions can be made with vegetables, the chechebsa I ordered was served with honey.  Without a sweetener, it was very dry, and somehow even heavier.

Kvint Brandy, Transnistria’s Most Popular Culinary Export

While traveling through Eastern Europe a few years ago, I ended up in Chisinau (or Kishinev), the capital of Moldova.  It’s a small but busy city in the former Soviet republic, in which Romanian and Russian are the principal languages– Romanian due to its ethnic and historical ties to the region of Bessarabia, and Russian for its annexation by the Soviet Union.

Using Chisinau as my base, I looked in to possible day trips; after a brief search, one particularly unique locale popped up: Transnistria.

It was an anachronistic trip to Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol, given the Soviet-era monuments and buildings, but this is a blog about food and drink, right?  Indeed…and it’s time to introduce Transnistria’s most famous culinary export, Kvint brandy.

KVINT -an acronym which translates to “divins, wines, and beverages of Tiraspol” – was founded in 1897 as Moldovan producer of wine and vodka.  Divin is an abbreviated way of saying brandy (from the Romanian phrase “distilat de vin), with a pun taken from the Romanian word divin signifying “divine” or “marvelous.”

KVINT introduced brandy to its collection in 1938, and has since formed quite the formidable presence in Transnistria, accounting for 4-5% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP)!

The company is now owned by a local conglomerate called Sheriff, which runs everything from supermarkets to the recently successful football club Sheriff Tiraspol.

To show its national appreciation to KVINT, I guess, the central Transnistrian bank added its headquarters to the back of its 5-ruble banknote:

To add a personal anecdote to the backgrounder, when I first made it to Tiraspol, I went to a Sheriff market looking for a bottle, having been tipped off to the brandy from a nice hotel worker in Chisinau.

Long story short, a few older women chuckled at me as I wandered the streets of the Transnistrian capital, brandy in one hand, camera in the other.

A Brief Food Tour of Mexico City, Part 1

As I mentioned in the latest post, Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the world.  And how might a city enter that hall of fame?

Having good food is a start.

I’d like to share with you a few highlights from a recent trip to the world’s largest Spanish-speaking city, in what I hope will become a series documenting Mexico’s variegated cuisines.

But before we dive in, we might want to consider…

La Vacuna Restaurant, Mexico City, Mexico

“The Vaccine.”  What an unusually timely name for a restaurant.  Though, I’d say for eating out on the town, washing up with soap with suffice.

OK, let’s start with two examples of comida callejera, or street food.

Street Food Vendor Preparing Chorizo Verde on a Comal (Flat Griddle)

Green chorizo, what?!  Yes, chorizo verde was something I only discovered at a brunch buffet two years ago in the Mexican capital.  Hailing from the city of Toluca in the state of Mexico (which surrounds Mexico City on three sides), chorizo verde consists of pork, and mix of herbs, spices, and chilies.  Standard chorizo – the reddish one given a smokiness by the cayenne pepper (pimentón)  – is quite filling, so the green version allows one to…eat even more.  That’s my experience, anyway!

Tacos de Chorizo Verde, Mexico City

Chorizo verde is not one of the more common street food options, but keep a look out for it if you want an herbal, slightly lighter take on its Iberian cousin.

Having consumed just two tacos for the day, I was still feeling peckish.  Enter, one of the best food stalls I’ve seen in Mexico City, nay anywhere, in the Colonia Juárez district.

It’s easy to get distracted by the deliciousness surrounding you in a place like Mexico, yet even in that lofty position, there exist stand-outs:

An Array of Meat and Salsa (and Guacamole), Mexico City, Mexico

On the comal – a flat griddle (historically made of clay) used for centuries in Mexico -these three chefs had chorizo, campechano (a mix of beef and pork of various cuts), suadero (fried beef), carnitas (shredded pork shoulder braised in its own fat), something akin to a burger, papas (potatoes), and nopales, or cactus.  What really sold me was the “fixins’ bar” of condiments– guajillo salsa, tomatillo salsa, beans, avocado tomatillo salsa, guacamole (!), pickled carrots, onions and cilantro, and a bevy of Veracruz limes.  Wow.

What did I order?

Two chorizo tacos with melted queso para asar (grilling cheese), potatoes, and onions, and a plate of the fun stuff.  Naturally, by the time I was finished chowing everything down, I had two more plates of salsa, and three more tacos.

Time for a drink break.

Namiola in Spanish, means wave.  It’s also the name of the first brand of sake produced on Mexican soil, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa.  Although the brewery, called Sakecul, produces three types of sake – junmai (純米 – pure rice without added alcohol/sugar), junmai ginjou (吟醸 – highly milled rice), and junmai daiginjou (大吟醸 – very highly milled rice, usually considered the top-tier of sake) – they also produce a beer called Haiku.  Nami was founded in September 2016, and can be found throughout major Mexican cities.

I sample the junmai and the daiginjou at Hiyoko, a modern yakitori restaurant in what has become the capital’s de facto Japanese barrio (neighborhood).

To top off my first review of Mexico City eats, I bring you la Señora Torres (named after the restaurant owner):

La Señora Torres, Mi Compa Chava, Mexico City, Mexico

Basically, I was searching in Spanish for popular restaurants in Mexico City, and came across Mi Compa Chava (My Pal Chava), a relative newcomer in the chic Roma Norte section of town.  It’s a seafood restaurant focusing on fresh catches from Sinaloa, the same state where the sake originated.

It’s also the home of that unbelieavable tower (torre coincidentally means “tower” in Spanish) of seafood, as shown above and below…

The edible skyscraper had layers of octopus, raw shrimp, cooked shrimp, cucumber, yellow fin tuna, red onion, avocado, and callo de hacha (scallops). Upon serving the tower, the waiter poured a blend of lime juice, charred tomatoes, Morita chilies, and a house salsa over it, returning the seafood back “to the sea.” Actually, that’s just my take on things.

The dish was a delight to conquer, and showed how fresh each ingredient could taste, in spite of being a couple of hours flight time from the Sinaloa port of Los Mochis (Mexico City is, after all the home of the largest seafood market in the country, and the largest wholesale food market in the world).

What’s that you say?  You want to see more of Mexican gastronomy?  Perhaps a churro, some tacos al pastor, or even a tour of the retail section of the wholesale food market?

I think that can be arranged.

Desserts: Calabaza en Tacha (Mexico)

For all of those Mexicophiles out there, you probably already know that the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival is approaching at the end of October.  In fact, it’s a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing, music, and face-painters, all in honor of the dead that return for a brief period to be with their relatives.

However, it was the Spanish conquistadors that shifted the festivities to coincide with Halloween (aka All Saints Day, a day of Catholic remembrance of the deceased).

Originally, the Aztecs celebrated their “great feast of the dead” (called Xocotlhuetzi) in present-day July/August, offering to their deities seasonal native crops such as beans, corn, and pumpkin.  The pumpkin -more commonly known as Cushaw squash and specifically Cucurbita argyrosperma (from Latin, “silver-seeded gourd”), was at that time prepared with honey in a fire pit.

When the Spanish Queen Isabel of Castile (Castilla) tried the pumpkin for the first time, it became a hit, even adopting one of her titles as its name– calabaza de castilla.

Isabel…that name sounds familiar.  In short, she was the queen of Spain when Columbus set sail for the western Atlantic.  Along with Spanish marauders, Columbus took sugar cane to the Caribbean, which eventually made it to Mexico in the early 1500s. Now that we’ve got our two main ingredients, let’s explore the dessert du jour, calabaza en tacha.

Calabaza de Tacha

Whereas calabaza refers to pumpkin, the tacha is a bit more confusing.  Formally, tacha means blemish, or tack (as in thumbtack).  To get more esoteric, a tacha is another name for a pot that is used to boil certain foods.

Water and cinnamon (cinnamon is actually from Sri Lanka) are first boiled in the pot, then a heaving mass of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) gets added. Thereafter, the only must is the pumpkin, and typically its seeds.  The version I tried, at the Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, was a real treat, counting sweet potato (camote) and guava (guayaba) as bonuses.  Cloves are often added near the end of the preparation.

Calabaza de tacha is a delicious blend of autumnal, international, and tropical flavors with a touch of local history that helps keep Mexico among my top spots for culinary travels.

Desserts: Rasgulla (India)

Dhaka - Rasgulla

Given Names: Rasgulla, Rasagola

 chhena*, maida*, sugar syrup, (lemon juice)

Background: Apparently, rasgulla is one of the oldest Indian desserts, arguably created in either Odisha or West Bengal (two present-day Indian states). According to legend, it was frequently used as an offering to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Verdict: Rasgulla is one of the more approachable Indian sweets.  Although it is soaked in sugar, I feel that the lemon juice and maida helped reduce the sugar’s potency.  Sometimes cardamom and/or rose water are added, as well as pistachios, though the latter serves more as a garnish.  Still, upon looking at that giant bowl of sugar syrup, how could you not want to go bobbing for rasgulla?

*chhena (Hindi)= a curd cheese made from water buffalo milk
maida= refined and bleached wheat flour, common in Indian breads and desserts
mithai= sweets/confectionery

Snow Fungus (East Asia)

Tremella fuciformis, also known as the snow mushroom or snow fungus, is a type of tropical/subtropical jelly fungus found in some forests after intense periods of rain.

Bangkok, Thailand- Snow Mushroom Juice

The polysaccharides of this cloud-like fungus are supposedly used to strengthen the immune system, and assist with radiotherapy/cancer treatment, and perhaps even combat immunodeficiencies brought on by stress, aging, and autoimmune diseases.

Moreover, the snow ear – as it is referred to in various East Asian countries – is a common ingredient in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cosmetics, thought to combat wrinkles and help moisture retention in the skin.

But, let’s remember that this is FindingFoodFluency.  Though the snow fungus is basically tasteless, due to its gelatinous texture, it is popular in both sweet and savory dishes in southern China and Vietnam.  Indeed, I can recall trying it while living in Shenzhen, China, in a dessert porridge with red dates and nameless flotsam.

Vuelva a la Vida (Mexico)

Ciudad del Carmen, in the Mexican state of Campeche, is not a star in Mexico’s tourism constellation.  It’s a petrol-oriented city on the Gulf of Mexico, hot year-round, and lacking in terms of attractions– its most-visited point of interest is Puente El Zacatal (The Zacatal/Pasture Bridge), the longest in the country.  Coincidentally, I had driven over this bridge in 2018, but didn’t stop to check out the city.

But, then you must remember, Ciudad del Carmen is still in Mexico, so the food’s probably good.  Considering that Campeche is the center of the shrimp industry on Mexico’s gulf coast, as long as you stick with seafood, you’re in good hands.

Shrimp Traffic Circle, Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico

Eager to try the local version of one of my favorite crustaceans, I randomly stopped for a bite at a restaurant called Coctelería Cajun, located right by El Zacatal Bridge.

Now, if you’re a fan of ceviche, you will find that the Mexican variety is quite different from the Peruvian.  In Mexico, ceviche and cóctel go hand-in-hand, offering up a mix of fish and seafood submerged in Clamato/tomato juice/ketchup and served in a glass or bowl.  Although I’m partial to the Peruvian exemplar, I’ve got a weakness for mariscos (seafood), so I had to try something.

That something became Vuelva a la Vida.

Meaning “return to life,” it is a popular hangover cure throughout Mexico.  Throw in a whole range of things from beyond the shore…think shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and then on top of that, add in red onion and cilantro, and if you’re like me, some wildly spicy salsa.  Don’t fret, for the sweetness of the tomatoes in the liquid base will help soothe some of the spiciness.

Though I really don’t ever want ketchup unless it’s beside a french fry, I couldn’t resist the assortment of marine life swimming in the glass.

Next time, I will see if they can add crab to the motley crew.

Airline Meals

Looking through photos of the pre-pandemic travel days, I began to feel nostalgic for something unusual…or so I thought, until coming across news of Malaysians being able to order AirAsia meals at Kuala Lumpur malls.  Soon after, I found out about Singapore Airlines catering economy and business class meals to private residences.  Folks, you’re in Southeast Asia; don’t you realize you’re in a hotbed of diverse cuisines?

But then I think, those people don’t necessarily miss the food, they miss the gestalt of traveling…among those traits are the thrill of boarding a plane, gazing at the various destinations visible on the airports departures screens, exploring the unknown, the mono no aware element, and of course, trying different foods.

The way I look at it, if I’m eating an airline meal, tasty or inedible, that means I’m traveling somewhere.

Hey, it could be worse.

Azerbaijan Airlines, New York JFK to Baku GYD, 2016.

When Azerbaijan Airlines launched this route – their only flight to the US – I had read that visas would be easier and cheaper to obtain by traveling on it.  Wanting to avail of this offer, I booked a flight to Istanbul, with a few days stopover in Baku.

Surprisingly, the in-flight meal wasn’t terrible.  Chicken and pasta, basdırma (air-dried beef), and a raspberry crumble were on the tray, none of which offended the palette too much.

Qatar Airways, Doha DOH to Philadelphia PHL, 2017.

Through some creative routing, I snagged a long-haul business class flight.  And really, Doha to Philly?  Yep, because Qatar Airways and American Airlines have hubs in those airports, respectively.

With this meal, the airline was truly cooking with gas.  Since it was breakfast time, they served ful medames, or cooked fava beans with olive oil, cumin and garlic, served with tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, and the mild Lebanese cheese called Baladi.

Skymark Airlines, Naha OKA to Ibaraki/Mito IBR, 2017.

Skymark Airlines is a Japanese low-cost carrier, so beyond a successful take-off and landing, don’t expect much.  Then again, it has never been an airline’s job to do anything more than get us from A to B, right?

Nevertheless, the snack was a company-branded Kit Kat bar.  What is it with Japan and Kit Kats?  Great marketing, that’s what.  When pronounced in Japanese, the name sounds similar to きっと勝つ, which translates as “undoubtedly/surely win.”

What consumers win besides a sugar rush is beyond me.

Japan Airlines, Tokyo NRT to Dallas DFW, 2017.

More business class airline food, but this time, courtesy of frequent flier miles.

They really piled on the courses, but this was one of the lighter entries.  Two things stand out: 1) On the smoked salmon salad is that condiment ubiquitous in East Asia, mayonnaise.  Can’t stand the stuff, primarily because of my time over there.  2) Tomato Juice.  I love tomatoes, and love their juice, but I only really drink the stuff on planes.  Seems many travelers share this behavior.

Oman Air, Bangkok BKK to Muscat, MCT, 2019.

This is the most recent in-flight meal photo I have in my photo gallery. The meal, chicken biryani with vegetables, green beans, and a chiffon cake, were not particularly memorable.

What does stand out in my mind was that just a few hours earlier, I was returning to my hotel room after partying with some Chinese colleagues in Shenzhen.  The full itinerary was Hong Kong to Bangkok to Muscat to Jeddah, so when this photo was taken the trip had barely begun.  All I can think about now is when the next time I can party in Shenzhen will be.

Four Snacks in Manila (Philippines)

After years of eating my way through the streets of Jakarta, Bangkok, Shenzhen, and other East Asian cities, it was about time to revisit Manila.

My recollection isn’t so great regarding the depth of street food in the megacity of the Philippines, but I seem to recall tripe, peanuts and garlic, and pastel-colored liquids in Tupperware in Rizal Park.  The good part about this is that we get to look at a few photos to help jog my memory.

Let’s begin!

If you’re into mangos, then the Philippines has you covered.  The local Carabao variety is widely known to be one of the world’s sweetest, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more refreshingly healthy snack than a cup of sliced mangos.

Lumpia/lumpiang Shanghai, or spring rolls, are a common snack (meryenda in Tagalog, which comes from the Spanish merienda) in Manila, first introduced to the country by Chinese immigrants.  Typically, the ingredients, are carrots, onions, and pork, along with salt, black pepper, and other spices.  To add that Filipino touch, it is often served with vinegar.

Bibingka are a type of Filipino kakanin, or rice-based dessert.  Their main ingredients are glutinous rice, and coconut milk or water, followed by smaller quantities of milk or eggs and sugar.  Some versions include shredded coconut or carabao (water buffalo) cheese.

Traditionally, bibingka were baked in banana leaves that were placed over charcoal in clay pots; however, to streamline the preparation, ovens have become the contemporary favorite.  If you’re in the Philippines around Christmas time – Misa de Gallo to be exact – expect to see bibingka served around breakfast time.

The average Southeast Asian city is hot and humid, so sitting down to a dessert of shaved ice can sound quite appealing after even a short time in the sun.  I’m no exception to this temptation…however, due to potable water being scarce in the region, I try to find cleaner-looking spots to try these particular sweets.

Halo halo, or mix mix in Tagalog, is the quintessential Filipino contribution to the shaved ice world.  What is it?  I still have no idea, but I’ve always considered it a metaphor for the US Food Pyramid…you’ll see.

As we already know, the base of halo halo is shaved ice.  Thereafter, things get dicey.  Evaporated milk and ice cream – ube, purple yam, is the most common, since it adds the strong violet color to the dessert – normally play a role.

My order above had slices of sweet potato and jackfruit, kidney beans, black beans, gelatin (most likely agar, from red algae), coconut strips, a pirouette cookie, and who knows what else.  Don’t worry, if you feel like it’s too healthy what with all of those beans and fruit, just ask for condensed milk.

What are your favorite street foods in Manila?

Calamari Hot Dog at Casa Kun, Mexico City

Mexico City is thus far, one of my favorite cities in the world.  It has some precious architecture, both classical and modern, the temperatures are great, and the food.

Oh, the food.

Today’s pick comes to us from the Renacimiento neighborhood of the Mexican capital, close to the city’s main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma.  After a mostly filling lunch of quesadillas, I was still hankering for a botana, or snack.

Randomly, I had passed by a restaurant called Casa Kun; on its menu was a dish of octopus prepared in peanut sauce.  I was not peckish enough for that, but given that the menu sounded delicious, I did a search online for meal recommendations.

That’s when I found out about the squid hot dog, or hot dog/jocho de calamar.

I’ve had my share of mystery meat hot dogs, and even an eel dog in Tokyo, so there was no way I could turn this one down.

Calamari Hot Dog, Casa Kun, Mexico City, Mexico

If you’re sensitive to “fishy” tastes, then the calamari hot dog would not offend you.  You are able to enjoy the flavor of the squid, the house-made mayonnaise, and the surprisingly tasty bun without any one flavor overpowering the others.  It was served with fried baby octopus, roasted potatoes with scallions, and chile de árbol salsa.

Want to watch me try the calamari hot dog for the first time?  Check out my YouTube.

Río Amazonas 73, Col. Renacimiento,
Renacimiento, Cuauhtémoc, 06500
Ciudad de México, CDMX, Mexico