Tasting the Real Thing at Daio Wasabi Farm in Hotaka, Japan

wasabi statue hotaka japan
Wasabi Statue, Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場), Hotaka, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

The first recorded instance of wasabi in Japan dates back to the year 981, during the Heian period of Japanese history. Someone wading through the Japanese Alps had thought its leaves looked like those of the mallow plant (in Japanese, 葵/あおい/aoi), consequently wasabi was first written as 山葵, or “mountain mallow.”

Then, during the Muromachi period (roughly 1392-1573), pairing wasabi with sashimi became a thing. Typing that out, I feel somewhat stupid, but in my defense, A) it’s written on the sign below, and 2) I reckon it’s one of the most famous duos in any cuisine today.

wasabi history Japan
The earliest known record of wasabi was from 981!

I know, you’re not here to become an ethnobotanist. You want peak wasabi, right?~~~

As my friend and I were traveling between Kanazawa and Matsumoto (although we went by rail via Itoigawa), I was searching for points of interest along the way. Since neither of us had ever visited a wasabi farm, the Daio Wasabi Farm (English reference page) in HotakaNagano prefecture stood out among the list of recommendations. At around 30 minutes walk from JR Hotaka station, it was a pleasant — and sometimes delicious — diversion from the norm.

Daio wasabi farm map
Daio Wasabi Farm Map

The Daio Wasabi Farm (official Japanese site), which opened in 1915, is purportedly the largest of its kind in Japan. Interestingly, within Japan Nagano prefecture competes with Shizuoka prefecture, also known for its green tea production, for the title of largest producer of wasabi. (link in Japanese)

Maybe naively, I was expecting to be detained by the smell of the fresh wasabi plants, and to see farmers using goggles and masks when handling Japan’s most famous rhizome.

Whoops, wrong on both counts.

wasabi plantation Japan
Water means life for wasabi
wasabi growing conditions
Key to Growing Wasabi: 7 Days Shade, 3 Days Sun

Wasabi plants aren’t huge fans of direct sunlight, so that’s why dark breathable cloth is used to cover them much of the time (in the two photos above, you can see the cloth rolled up).

After walking around the beautifully kept farm, dipping my toes in the frigid spring water, and sampling some gimmicky snacks and drinks flavored with wasabi, my friend and I continued on to the castle city of Matsumoto, just under 30 minutes away by train from Hotaka.

You might be asking, “did you even try fresh wasabi?” But of course. We even bought a steel grater (おろし金/oroshigane) for it (traditionally, wasabi graters were made of sharkskin). Immediately thereafter, we thought, what a pointless idea … on what/at which point would we even grate the darn thing?

Then, I figured, let’s just take it to a random restaurant and see what happens:

Kitamon soba restaurant Matsumoto
Kitamon (北門) Soba Restaurant, Matsumoto, Japan

A simple explanation to the kind waitress at Kitamon soba restaurant in Matsumoto let us sample the true flavor and texture of nama wasabi, or fresh wasabi. Basically, it’s NOTHING like the neon green stuff you’ve been eating.

Go on, give Daio Wasabi Farm a shot.


Do you like wasabi? How about the fresh version?

Avocado Coffee (Da Nang, Vietnam)

It amuses me that one of the things I was most looking forward to having again in Vietnam was the coffee. I rarely drink the stuff outside of when trying to overcome jet lag, yet still have good memories of quotidian cups of cà phê (coffee, in Vietnamese) from having visited Hanoi and Ha Long Bay a few years ago.

Thus, in the world’s second-largest producer of coffee — after Brazil — it was difficult to narrow-down the first café to visit in Da Nang (or Danang), in central Vietnam. Indeed, coffee culture is very strong in this part of Southeast Asia, with numerous cafes trying to outcompete each other with comfortable chairs, small gardens, koi ponds, and plenty of outdoor seating.

In spite of the fierce competition, I went with a place called H Coffee, not far from the beach and boardwalk hugging the East Vietnam Sea.

How did I choose it? Simple … avocado coffee.

As some of you might know, I’m a big fan of avocados. Frequent travels to Mexico in the past few years might have help my case. However, I’ve never seen avocado and coffee combined in Mexico.

Owing to the French introduction of trái bơ (avocado, in Vietnamese) to Vietnam in 1940, fellow aguacate fanatics can rejoice in this recent addition to the Vietnamese drinks scene:

avocado coffee espresso vietnam
Avocado Coffee, H Coffee, Da Nang, Vietnam

Hold up, that doesn’t look like avocado coffee. I see avocado ice cream (with condensed milk inside), and an espresso. It’s more like an avocado affogato; try to say that three times fast.
For those unfamiliar with an affogato, you take the espresso and slowly pour it over the ice cream. Done! In!

Was it delicious? Of course. Should I have ordered again the next day? If it weren’t for the flooded streets, I would have!


Might you be interested in an avocado coffee mash-up?

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:

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!

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!

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!

Four Eats – and One Beer – in Antwerp, Belgium (VIDEO)

Since my last visit to Belgium was in 2007, I figured that it was time to go back to the land of fries, chocolate, and although I rarely drink it, beer.

antwerp belgium train station facade
Antwerp Train Station, Belgium: Very Cool Façade

With just a couple of days in Antwerp — home of a beautiful train station, massive diamond trading, and court portrait artist Anthony Van Dyck — I had to make tracks in my food quest.

How many stone do I weigh now? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Belgium once again proved that its chocolate, fries, and beer are a dangerous trifecta too good not to want to try.

Need proof?

Adjaruli Khachapuri, aka Georgia’s Bread Boat, and Tarragon Soda

Often translated as “cottage cheese bread,” khachapuri might be the most well-known home-grown meal in Georgia. Though many regional varieties of khachapuri exist — one Georgian site estimates no less than 53 types throughout the country — one version in particular has claimed my heart, and not only for its unhealthiness.

mountains batumi marina
A view of the Batumi marina with Mtirala National Park in the background

In the western Georgia city of Batumi, the mountains of Mtirala National Park provide a spectacular contrast to the calm Black Sea, newfangled and bizarre apartment complexes overshadow their older, dilapidated counterparts, and bread boats are a dime a dozen.

I’m talking about Adjaruli khachapuri.

adjaruli khachapuri cheese bread
A plate of Adjaruli khachapuri at Porto Franco restaurant in Batumi, Georgia

Hugging the Black Sea coast is the region of Adjara, of which Batumi is the capital and largest city. Due to its littoral location, Adjara’s most famous khachapuri comes to us in the shape of a boat; I always thought it resembled a kayak, with the irony being that after you eat it, you won’t be able to fit in  a kayak.

Sulguni, a briny cow’s cheese, eggs and, of all things butter combine make the “passenger seat” of the boat an exceedingly delicious one, yet also one that all too easily erupts. According to the BBC, the egg is supposed to represent the sun, and the cheese, the Black Sea.

Given that Adjaruli khachapuri was one of many, many dishes on my must-eat-in-its-native-habitat list, I further added to the craziness by having it with a bottle of tarragon soda. Although tarragon originally hails from Siberia, it has been a popular ingredient – and soda flavor – in Georgia for decades.

And now, here’s the video for part 2 in the Georgia food series:

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!

The Borojó Fruit (Ecuador)

market borojo fruit
Borojo (Borojó) Fruit, Mercado Santa Clara, Quito, Ecuador

I have good food memories of the Mercado Santa Clara (Santa Clara Market) in Quito, Ecuador.  Not only did I try a delicious ceviche with fresh squeezed lime, I added a new food to my glossary, the borojó.

The borojó is native to rainforests in Ecuador and Colombia in South America, and has also been found growing in Panama.  The etymology of the word comes from the Emberá (aka Chocó) language, in which boro means “head,” and {ne-}jo is “fruit.” Borojó requires constant high humidity, plenty of rain, and warm temperatures, hence being relatively limited to the tropical climate zones of northwestern South America. Its trees can reach heights of up to ~16 feet, and last for roughly 4 years (via Candelaestereo).

Among its culinary uses, the fruit is generally mixed with milk and sugar to produce marmalades and preserves, and makes for a good batido (shake) if you you blend it up with coconut milk.  For more moribund purposes, it is used to embalm corpses in Atrato and San Juan, Colombia, and for budding casanovas, it has mythical aphrodisiacal properties.

In terms of health benefits, borojó contains a good deal of phosphorous – useful for your teeth, bones and much, much more – amino acids, protein, and vitamins C & B.

Want to try it?  It’s a cumbersome fruit, so I recommend you either visit South America, or try a bottle of this.


Have you heard of the borojó?

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