Delightful Seafood at Marajillo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

pulpo zarandeado / octopus nayarit-style mexico
Pulpo Zarandeado, Restaurante Marajillo, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

I’ve got to show a hint of appreciation to a lackluster Airbnb for having introduced me to one of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever tried.

Marajillo, a small, noisy restaurant and bar in the middle of nowhere touristy Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was mostly a bright spot during my brief stay in that tourism hub. Although I cannot recommend the comparatively bland and insipid ceviche Vallarta, the pulpo zarandeado, chicharrón de pescado (fried fish resembling pork rinds), and aguachile were excellent.

Although the verb zarandear generally refers to shaking and jostling something, in cooking, it refers to a style from the central western Mexican state of Nayarit. In this case, it means to split something — usually fish — from head to tail, and grilling it on a rack over hot coals. My dish at Marajillo was pulpo, or octopus, one of my favorites from the wide world of mariscos mexicanos, or Mexican seafood:

Javanese Buffet at Bali’s Warung Kolega Restaurant

Spicy fish, braised eggplant, pandan pancakes stuffed with sweetened coconut … if you’re looking for a primer in Javanese food with a hint of Balinese flavor, look no further than my video from Warung Kolega restaurant in Legian, Bali:

Gaziantep, Turkey: City of Baklava and Pistachios

It’s not so easy to determine which place can call itself the true inventor of baklava, since it’s existence isn’t well-documented prior to the 19th century. It may come from present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, or Armenia, although its popularity certainly spread throughout the Balkans and beyond because of the Ottoman Empire.

Years ago, the European Union (EU) did Turkish cuisine a solid by considering Turkey to be the creator of baklava, placing it on its list of items protected designation of origin, as well as protected geographical indication. However, one joy of eating is to appreciate food without getting caught up in a geopolitical kerfuffle.

Koçak Baklava Gaziantep Turkey
Sampler Platter of Baklava and a Turkish Coffee at Koçak Baklava, Gaziantep, Turkey

Forming part of a hub of Turkish food in southern central Anatolia, if you want to eat like a local, the city of Gaziantep is known for two things– baklava, and pistachios. There’s also baklava’s cousin, katmer, but it’s not nearly as well-known overseas.

Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my video of Karagöz Caddesi, or what I consider to be Gaziantep’s “baklava street,” but there are plenty of other sweets shops around to reel you in. However, I did prepare a brief baklava tour of the city; given the deliciousness of the country, more videos of Turkish gastronomy will undoubtedly follow!

Gardening at Istanbul’s Ancient Belgrade Gate

For this particular lengthy city walk, I was in Istanbul, Turkey, making my way from the tourist hotspot of Taksim, all the way to the unofficial Uyghur capital of Zeytinburnu. As is typical with my city walks, I rarely have a desired route in mind, instead letting the five senses take me down a given street. This constitutional took around 2.5 hours, with a couple of stops in between for dessert, and spinach.

Spinach?! Why???

istanbul belgrade gate gardening
Gardening at Belgrade Gate, Istanbul Ancient City Wall, Turkey

Named in honor of Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent’s conquest of Belgrade in 1521, the Belgrade Gate (in Turkish,  Belgradkapı) forms part of Istanbul’s ancient city wall. I only chanced upon it at random, yet it proved to be a unique spot, even in a city full of impressive locales.

In fact, I discovered some farmers who happened to be tending to crops right beside it.

Locavore produce mixed with local history?

This right here is why I travel.

By the way, I’ve never tasted spinach more delicious than that.

Semolina Halva/İrmik Helvası (Turkey)

My first trip to Turkey was in 2006; I went with my family to Istanbul, Kayseri, and Göreme, the epicenter of Cappadocia and its unusual fairy chimneys:

Cappadocia fairy chimneys
Göreme, Turkey, Home of Cappadocia’s Fairy Chimneys

Now, even 16 years ago, I realized that Turkish food was excellent; the kebabs, baklava, dried fruit … just about everything was delicious. But those were already well-known foods before visiting Turkey. How about something new?

While on a tour of Cappadocia, we were invited to eat with a local Turkish family. Although I recall the entire meal being good, only the dessert is still memorable to this day. Why? Perhaps because it was the only dish that I was trying for the first time– the main ingredients were some sort of grain, mixed with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and pine nuts.

I didn’t know the name of the meal until a chance encounter last year in Skopje, North Macedonia:

pistachio halva with peanuts
Helvacı Ali, Skopje, North Macedonia- Semolina Halva (İrmik Helvası)

I couldn’t believe it. After 16 years, I had finally rediscovered the very same dessert, and perhaps more importantly, found out its name– irmik helvası, in English, semolina halva.

Of course! Semolina, the milled wheat product also commonly used in pasta and couscous, was the grain. More embarrassingly, I’ve had nearly identical semolina-based desserts — similarly called halwah — in India.

But this version, found at a Turkish dessert chain called Helvacı Ali, was a dolled-up one, flavored with pistachios and topped with peanuts.

Last month, I popped by the same chain in Istanbul, for an even more ridiculous exemplar– pistachio and chocolate halva topped with tahini and crushed pistachios:

pistachio chocolate semolina halva
Helvacı Ali, Istanbul, Turkey – Semolina Halva (İrmik Helvası)

It’s customary to have semolina halva with black tea during the winter, and Turkish ice cream, called dondurma, during the summer.

Recipe!

Which Airports Have On-Site Supermarkets?

As much as I personally love finding new foods to eat, I feel that much better when I can share some of the findings with family and friends. Though, it would be fair to say I don’t always remember to get to a city supermarket for some last-minute local food souvenir shopping.

That’s a big part of where airport supermarkets shine. Besides being good places to buy snacks and sandwiches at downtown prices — $6.99 Chex Mix at Hudson News, I’ll see you in hell — they’re typically found before security checkpoints (so that anyone could get their shopping done), and if you can’t donate them, are good places to use up those coins weighing down your pockets.

Although they are most commonly found in European airports, Asia sports a handful, too. The * next to each listing means I can personally vouch for the supermarket’s existence; this list will be updated as I discover more.

Airport Supermarkets

Amsterdam Schiphol, airport code: AMS*
Albert Heijn: there’s a shopping center in the airport Arrivals Hall, where the buses/cars enter the terminal, and one level up from the train station. Drinks, snacks, prepared foods such as Indonesian rice dishes.

Brussels, airport code: BRU
Louis Delhaize: In the Arrivals Hall. This one not only has typical supermarket products, but also a small post office.

Dubai, airport code: DXB*
Carrefour: Terminal 3, Arrivals Hall. Unlike most of the other listings, this one is 24 hours.

zaatar manakish and kamaruddin drink
Manakish bil Zaatar and Kamaruddin Ramadan Drink, Carrefour, Dubai Airport Terminal 3

Frankfurt, airport code: FRA:
REWE: Terminal 1, by The Square at the airport rail station.

Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen, airport code: SAW*
Airport Market: if you have just arrived, it’s all the way to the right in the Arrivals Hall. Drinks, snacks, and a sandwich/meze (appetizer) counter.

London Heathrow, airport code: LHR
Marks & Spencer: In the Arrivals Halls of Terminals 2, 3, and 5.

Munich, airport code: MUC*
Edeka: Terminal 2, Level 3.

Munich Airport Edeka Supermarket Food
Lunch at Edeka Supermarket, Munich Airport, Terminal 2

Paris Charles de Gaulle, airport code: CDG
Marks & Spencer: Terminal 2, section E.

Singapore Changi, airport code: SIN*
FairPrice Finest: Terminal 3, Basement 2. Also, in the Jewel shopping complex, Basement 2.

Vienna Schwechat, airport code: VIE*
Billa: Terminal 1, Arrivals Hall.

Zurich Kloten, airport code: ZRH
Migros: Ground floor, between the railway station and car rental desks.

Kerala Set My Mouth on Fire, Part 1: The Fish Dish of Kovalam

After a 16-year hiatus, I revisited India, spending one week in the South Indian state of Kerala.

Although it sounds like a short trip, I was able to cram a lot of different meals into those days, spread out over three primary locations: Kovalam, Trivandrum (aka Thiruvananthapuram), and Kochi (aka Cochin).

south indian set meal
Truly One of the Best Fish Dishes I’ve Ever Tried, Kovalam, Kerala, India

Starting with Kovalam, a beach-centric suburb of Trivandrum in the southern part of the state of Kerala, one particular lunch was a feast; I can gladly say that it was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had, the bizarre presence of grape juice notwithstanding.

A typical South Indian set meal is called sadya (സദ്യ, in the predominant Kerala language of Malayalam), and is served with a variety of vegetable curries surrounding a heaping portion of white rice. You scoop it all up with your hands, and can even ask for refills!

If you’d like to see me embarrass myself struggling with the chilies while attempting to scoop up rice, check out the video below–

Although it’s much easier to find North Indian-influenced cuisine in the United States due to immigration patterns, I’d highly recommend seeking out sadya, or even try preparing one yourself … though banana leaves might be in short supply!

Maple Water (Latvia)

I do love the flavor of maple. Freshly poured as a syrup on pancakes or pain perdu, or as maple taffy, butter, or even maple sugar. The aroma of maple syrup is equally tantalizing, though I have been fooled once before. An Amman, Jordan bakery got the best of me when they used fenugreek in a dessert; apparently, when fenugreek is processed in large quantities, a compound called solotone is released, emitting a maple-like scent.

To make syrup and other byproducts of sap from the maple tree, it’s not only laborious, but it also happens for a short time during the year. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the best time to tap that sap — that sounds naughty — is when temperatures drop below freezing during the nighttime, and then rise to the 40s in the daytime. Even then, an average of 40-60 gallons of sap creates just one gallon of maple syrup! No wonder the price point for the real stuff is high.

However, if you’re in the camp that finds maple syrup too sweet, but still want the maple flavor, Latvia might have a solution: maple water. For a suggestion of where to get it, visit the Central Market of Riga, the capital of Latvia, and home to a rather anachronistic set of buildings:

riga latvia central market
The former German zeppelin hangars of the Riga Central Market, Latvia

Built in the 1920s, Riga Central Market’s giant structures first housed German zeppelins, or airships. By the 1930s, they had formed one of Europe’s busiest and largest retail markets, only briefly stopping to serve the public during Nazi occupation in World War II. Although the pandemic seemed to have quieted much of hubbub, fortunately, I was able to locate maple water (kļavu sula in Latvian) this time.

maple water bottle riga
A bottle of home-tapped maple water, Riga Central Market, Latvia

Per Sig, maple water is the maple tree sap in its rawest form, consisting of ~98% water; only after boiling it do you get the much more well-known maple syrup. Consequently, the vendor told me that it should be consumed within two days of opening, as it has a very short shelf life.

Health benefits of maple water include significant amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, and electrolytes, but it’s also a diuretic, so you may not want to chug it before an operation, or at a sporting event.

Video: Eating at Toma’s Wine Cellar, Kutaisi, Georgia

Let the record show that, at 00:22 on February… 23, 2022, I chose to spice things up with Finding Food Fluency–

More videos!

More food in the here-and-now!

More wanderlust!

With that digital intro out of the way, today I will take you all on a brief tour of Toma’s Wine Cellar, a restaurant in Kutaisi, Georgia specializing in food from its home region of Imereti.

It’s a family production where Toma is the host, first shows you where the wine – and chacha, a Georgian firewater made of grape pomace – are made. Then, you’re treated to a supra, a feast of local specialties, all washed down with good conversation and relaxing vibes.

Since it’s at the family home, you must call or email Toma first; the info is in the video.

For your reference, the first vegetable in the video is called jonjoli, or Caucasian bladdernut (wow, so appetizing!). Thereafter, things start make a bit more sense.

გაამოთ (gaa-mot), or bon appétit!

Sea Urchin …Cream Cheese? (Japan)

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea innards/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too. What do you reckon?

No matter how one feels about uni, what I believe to be one of many cool aspects of Japan is the frequent presence of food fairs somewhere on the upper levels of department stores. Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During my last visit to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu — mind you, this was a few years ago — I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring. Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a nuanced selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item stood out a bit more than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest. Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite of Amakusa uni before a having tea)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when. I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d spread a bagel or baguette with this stuff any day.

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