Category Archive: Culinary Journeys

Sicily – Island Of Light

Zingaro Nature Reserve

We had landed in Palermo on a late flight from Rome, and were greeted by the balmy air of a summer night filled with humidity and a faint smell of the ocean. Cab drivers lazily hung around their cars, smoking cigarettes and motioning us to get into a taxi that belonged to an old man whose face was wrinkled up from too much sun and cigarettes. He was polite and spoke no English, and drove a stubborn 50k/h on the fast highway that leads into the city, at times slowing down to a mere 30k/h, which prompted other drivers to honk at us violently. We drove past endless rows of houses in various states of disrepair, with laundry hanging from the windows and balconies, and giant oleander trees in full bloom. When we got to our hotel, the old man took our luggage out of the car and with an inviting gesture asked us in slurry Italian if we wanted to have some “vino” from his trunk. I knew I was going to like it there.

Sicilian Food and Sights

Palermo is like the cacti that grow in abundance all over the island. Rough and prickly, but not without its charm. Most of the historic sites are shamefully decrepit, and yet alluring in their baroque opulence. Blight, trash, and graffiti make for a crazy chaotic scene, but we never felt unwelcome, in danger, or repulsed. It was all far too fascinating, partly because Palermo’s inhabitants seem incredibly proud of their city, despite its very obvious shortcomings.

We had our first introduction to caponata in Palermo – a wonderfully aromatic dish made with deep fried eggplants, tomatoes, celery, raisins, pine nuts, and red vine vinegar. And we ate copious amounts of arancini, deep fried breaded rice balls that come in two versions. “Al ragu” with meat sauce and peas, and “al burro” with mozzarella and prosciutto cotto. One was never enough, no matter how big.

What we really had come for though were cannoli and cassata – only to find out that both were way too sweet for our taste. So instead, we turned our attention to the wonderfully refreshing granita that are served on every corner. The trick was to get the old fashioned version consisting of shaved ice and freshly squeezed fruit juice, rather than the machine churned slushy mess. Soon enough we gave in to another Palermitan culinary institution- gelato served in a brioche bun. It might sound weird, but it tasted incredibly delicious, especially with watermelon or almond ice cream. Watermelon made another appearance in pastry shops all over Palermo in the form of a jello (gelo di anguria) that is flavored with clove and either eaten by itself or used as a filling in little pies. The jello is usually sprinkled with chocolate chips, symbolizing watermelon seeds. But our favorite sweet treat (aside from ice cream) hands down was latte di mandorla, which is made from locally produced marzipan (made from almonds grown on the island) and served chilled.

Palermo Food and Sights

Once we had our fill of baroque churches and crumbling neighborhoods, we drove west to Marsala, from where we explored the surrounding sites, including trips to the magnificent ruins of the ancient Greek town of Selinunte, picturesque Erice, Lo Zingaro, Sicily’s oldest nature reserve, and the very Tunisian town of Mazara del Vallo with its Kasba. The whole area has a vague northern African look to it, with Tunisia being closer than mainland Italy. It’s all decidedly Italian, but seems very, very far from Rome.

The landscape is dotted with olive trees, vineyards, cacti, oleander, aloe vera, and bougainvillea, and everything is bathed in the most magnificent light, against the backdrop of a deep blue sky. People are proud of the land and its products – capers, salt from the salt flats between Marsala and Trapani, tuna, sword fish, Bronte pistachios, almonds, couscous (reflecting the proximity to northern Africa), an array of cheeses and cured hams, and of course, lemons. We sampled melt-in-your-mouth smoked sword fish, tuna, Busiate (a local pasta) with Pesto alla Trapanese (made with tomatoes, almonds, and basil), fantastically lively Grillo (a local white wine) and fruity Malvasia, and we went on a hunt to chase down the best sweet wine I have ever tasted, Donnafugata’s Passito di Pantelleria . It is made from Zibibbo grapes that are grown on the tiny island of Pantelleria (south of Sicily) and are left on the vine to dry in the sun. The resulting wine is beyond description. One night at a well stocked and cool Enoteca in Marsala, our waiter brought us his favorite Marsala with a small bowl of local almond cookies, and the intense taste of the dry wine was the perfect way to end yet another beautiful day.

Marsala Food and Sights

When our last day on the island came all too soon, we felt like we were not quite ready yet to give up la dolce vita, but parting was made a little bit easier knowing that several bottles of wine, olive oil, salted capers, orange flower honey, and other goodies were coming home with us in our suitcases. And we’ll be back for more, hopefully next spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.

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The Kitchen Is Closed

…for the next two weeks as I will be on a quest to find the best cannoli and cassata. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you when I get back. In the meantime, enjoy the beautiful summer days and happy cooking!

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Istanbul’s Bazaars – A Food Lover’s Paradise

Istanbul

Istanbul is one of those cities that instantly wows you with its crazy energy and seemingly contradictory mix of east and west, old and new. Nowhere can you feel the heartbeat of this great city more than at its many bazaars. They are truly spectacular places that make you wish supermarkets were never invented. People come to socialize as much as they come to shop, and even if you don’t want to buy anything, browsing and people watching are so fun, you’ll never want to leave. At least, that’s how I felt.

Istanbul Bazaars

My favorite were the food bazaars with their sheer endless amount of delicacies. If you lingered for a second admiring the goods on display, someone would usually offer us a little sample – an olive, a piece of cheese, a dried fig stuffed with walnuts, a pickle, or a slice of pastirma (air-dired, cured beef). Spending the morning or afternoon getting lost among the hundreds of little shops around the Spice Bazaar, sampling the plumpest dried apricots, nibbling on crunchy hazelnuts, stopping for tea and some baklava, and enjoying a simple lunch at a Börek shop was inspiring, relaxing, and exciting all at once.

Spice Bazaar Istanbul

We had heard a lot of people raving about the famous Spice Bazaar, but it didn’t take us long to figure out that the real market takes place outside of the covered bazaar area – that’s where the locals shop. Even better were some of the small street markets on the Asian side across the Bosphorus where I bought a bag of beautiful dried sage. It makes the most delicious cup of tea, and I wish I would have bought at least three times as much!

Spice Bazaar Istanbul

Now that I’m back home, I frequent the Turkish neighborhood bakeries and döner stalls a lot more, but it’s just not the same. And I’m on a quest to find Sarelle pure hazelnut spread, which (as impossible as it may sound) puts Nutella to shame. I first discovered it at a delicatessen shop around the Spice Bazaar, and then later bought it in a supermarket on Istanbul’s Asian side. If I’m able to find it here, I’ll make sure to purchase a few jars and dream about our next trip to Istanbul and beyond…

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Istanbul – A Sweet Journey

Istanbul is magnificent. Exotic and familiar all at once. At times overwhelming. And one of the most rewarding culinary destinations. Home to somewhere around 15 million people, it is the only city in the world that is spread out over two continents, Europe and Asia, which are separated by the Bosphorus. The unique geography and history of Istanbul, which once also went by the names of Constantinople and Byzantium have given this vibrant city its many complex layers.

The first thing I fell in love with in Istanbul were the pastry shops with their gorgeous windows full of giant trays filled with neat rows of flaky, sticky, nutty delicacies. Resistance was futile, that much was clear as soon as we stepped out of our hotel, and we happily spent a week sampling our way through Istanbul’s sweet offerings.

Turkish Pastries, Baklava, And Sweets

My love for baklava goes way back, but eating baklava in Turkey is like the difference between a hamburger from McDonald’s and a gourmet hamburger. What made it so outrageously delicious were the nuts – hazelnuts, walnuts, and pistachios with the most intense flavor. And the sugar syrup was just so. Not too sweet, not too sticky, and not too much. Perfection in every little square.

Many pastry shops also sell various types of traditional puddings. We tried milk pudding (called muhallebi in Turkish) once, a silky, soft concoction with the most sublime taste. For the serious sugar addicts, shops and bazaars offer endless amounts and flavors of lokum, or Turkish delight. The brightly colored jelly-like cubes are covered in powdered sugar and their chewy, intense sweetness is not for the faint of heart.

Wandering through the streets of Istanbul and admiring the artfully prepared sweets on display in the countless pastry shops makes it easy to imagine the splendor of the legendary Ottoman cuisine of bygone days. Luckily, some of this splendor has survived for us to savor!

Turkish Delight

I have loads of pictures to share with you guys, so stay tuned for more about Istanbul coming up soon !

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the lovely Anne who blogs over at pigpigscorner. She recently gave away beautiful tins with tea flowers, and I was so excited when I found out that I was one of the winners! I’ve never won anything, so I’m holding on to my gift just a little bit longer before I brew myself a tea with one of the flowers. Please make sure to visit her wonderful blog, which is full of tons of mouthwatering recipes, restaurant reviews, and inspiring photos.

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A Sri Lankan Food Adventure

Sri Lankan Food

Hello everyone, I’m back from my trip and excited to be blogging again! Sri Lanka was quite a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the country has experienced some very unusual heavy rainfalls in the past month, resulting in massive flooding in large areas. Over a million people were displaced by the floods, and there is concern that the destruction of rice and other crops due to the flooding will lead to food shortages and severe price hikes. The trip was largely over shadowed by never ending torrential rainfalls during the last two weeks, but we did have fantastic weather the first week.

The natural beauty of Sri Lanka was spectacular and ranged from unspoiled sandy beaches lined with coconut palm trees to rugged mountains carpeted with row after row of bright green tea plantations. Otherwise, the island seemed strangely empty and devoid of any captivating cultural sights. While the landscape was dotted with numerous Buddhist and Hindu temples, and the ruins of ancient civilizations (which enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status), it lacked the splendor and magic of similar sights in other Asian countries. The daily attempts by locals to scam us out of our money, which were often elaborate and involved entire groups of people did not help either. Anyone who was not interested in our money though could not have been friendlier and more helpful, always offering a warm smile.

And yet, something seemed off. Even though the civil war ended last May, the military and police presence was overwhelming. Soldiers and cops were everywhere, manning checkpoints and parading around with giant machine guns at the ready. It was eerie and seemed mainly like a display of power by a president who is the next dictator in the making rather than a sign of lurking danger. The island is also home to an enormous population of huge black crows and stray dogs in various stages of malnutrition. In fact, I have never seen so many stray dogs in such bad shape. All of them were more or less skeletons, a lot of them were injured, and some had lost all their fur. It was pitiful and horrendous, especially since there were government run veterinary clinics all over the island . And it also landed me in the hospital.

Towards the end of our trip we came across two dogs at the side of the road who were nothing but bones, so I decided to feed them the pack of cookies I had just bought as a snack. I will never forget the eyes of the skinnier one. She was so hungry, she snatched a cookie out of my hand and in the process lightly scratched the skin on my thumb. It was a very minor injury, more like a paper cut, but I got really paranoid about the possibility of having contracted rabies, which is fatal if untreated. So we decided to play it safe and went to the ER at a private hospital in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I was told rabies is extremely common there, and that it can be contracted via even the smallest laceration, particularly on the hands. Despite the terrifying look of the ER (the sheets on the beds were blood stained, the floor had clearly never been cleaned, the waste basket was over flowing with trash, and the walls were covered in dark stains), the doctors were very competent and friendly. I was given 5 shots, one of them in my thumb right next to the scratch, which did not exactly feel like I was on vacation, and told I was definitely going to live, but needed to come back for more shots. Which I did, and which I still have to do now that I am home. So I have vowed to never ever feed stray dogs again, even if it is going to break my heart.

Aside from the natural beauty, the one thing Sri Lanka had definitely going for itself was the food. It was incredible and incredibly spicy! It took a while to get used to the hair raising level of spiciness, especially since there was never any respite. Every meal and every dish was a wild spicy ride, but it was all so delicious. My favorites were the fish and vegetable curries with rice. The vegetables ranged from potatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, red beets, carrots, leeks,and green beans to exotic jack fruit, plantains, and cashew nuts. Curries were served with a variety of condiments, such as different sambols and chutneys, as well as samba rice (a very small grain white or red rice), and papadums or naan bread. Locals eat with their hands, and they swear it tastes better that way. I tried it once, but I felt like a messy 3-year old waiting to get scolded for spilling food all over the table.

Curry was not just reserved for lunch or dinner, it was also eaten for breakfast. String hoppers with curry, or milk rice with curry were popular breakfast dishes. And of course, it all came with a hefty dose of chilies to start the day off on the right note. When the spiciness got out of hand, there were always wonderfully sweet and juicy fruit, such as papaya, mango, and pineapple. For lunch, we usually opted for snacks such as rotis filled with vegetables or meat, or samosas. These and other “short eats” as the locals call them, are served up by bakeries, which also prepare very sticky sweets, including cashew milk toffee. The most popular desert though was undoubtedly curd and honey, which is a complete misnomer, because it features neither curd nor honey. The curd is really yogurt made from buffalo milk, which had a lovely rich and creamy texture and an interesting flavor with a slight tang to it. The honey that is poured over the curd is actually treacle, or syrup made from the kitul palm. In its solid form it is called jaggery and used like sugar.

I managed to get a gorgeous Sri Lankan cookbook in Colombo, and I can’t wait to try out some of the dishes in it. My husband has already put in requests for spicy curries, so stay tuned for some recipes coming up soon!

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