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In the shadows of memories

Written by Emmy on 7 November 2011

Monday morning marked the end of the official LisSister journey through Spain. I had to make my way up to Barcelona in order to fly across the ocean Tuesday morning, though Jessica was able to fly back to Rome directly from Valencia, thanks to my favorite airline. And so we bid farewell and I took the train and arrived back in Barcelona just after 2 p.m and just in time for a menu del dia.

When I first got to Barcelona two years ago, I went through a six-hour teacher training in order to work at La Mar Bella. We received a midday break for lunch and with three of my friends, I headed to a nice cafe near the CASB building. We had heard about the wonders of menu del dia, but had not yet partaken. So we sat down, ordered our three courses, and then because the concept of day drinking legally was still novel to us, we each ordered wine, expecting a glass. Instead, we received two full bottles. The afternoon part of training was far more fun.

I continued returning to Por Sant with my friends because of the delightful outdoor seating, copious amounts of wine and unbelievably good food. When my mom came to visit, I brought her there and when Chaz came to Barcelona, we spent several happy hours on the Por Sant patio.

There was no way I could return to Barcelona and not eat there, so I went by myself for a delicious lunch. The menu changes daily, but rarely disappoints. I was pleased to find several new options available, as well as some old favorites. I started with zucchini baked with mushrooms and cheese in a light tomato sauce.

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I followed this with chicken stewed with prunes and apricots. This was always my favorite Por Sant entree and I was pleased to see it was still a menu regular. The dish is served in a sweet wine sauce, though it has a little bit of a citrusy kick.

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One of the beauties of the menu del dia and meals in Spain in general is that you will never be rushed away from your table. Lingering is encouraged, and so I sat for a while with my personal bottle of white wine and watched the quiet commotion of the streets nearby. The waitress who served me was the same waitress who always helped my friends and I. She was much nicer to me as the quiet solo diner of ambiguous origin than she was to me as a member of the crowd of loud obviously American teenagers.

For dessert I had the cheesecake, which in Spain is far lighter than in the U.S.

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From Por Sant I took a long winding walk down La Rambla, through Plaça Catalunya and into the heart of the Gothic Quarter. I paid a visit to La Manual Alpargatera, the world-renowned espadrille-manufacturing store. Espadrilles are quite possibly the most comfortable shoes in the world and I am very pleased that they have remained a fashionable item in the U.S. While you can find them in most nice shoe stores at fairly high prices, at La Manual they will stretch their handmade shoes to create a custom fit and the average pair costs nine euros.

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From La Manual I took a weaving route back to my old neighborhood. By Monday I was experiencing serious nostalgia for my time abroad. I went to my neighborhood Mercadona to pick up Spanish candy for my friends back in New York and sat on a bench in the Onix courtyard for a while. The courtyard was, as always, filled with little kids playing soccer, despite the rampant “No fútbol” signs. The adults couldn’t care less; they were all busy having a beer or playing bocci ball nearby. I saw several girls around my age walking into the supermarket from Onix and had to resist all temptations to start talking to them. I thought it might be a little creepy, so I refrained and just drank my 18-cent seltzer. (Grocery shopping in Spain is a remarkably cheap experience.)

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I had a similar reaction to returning to Barcelona as Chaz’s homecoming to Sweden, which he reflected upon after returning. Ever since leaving Spain, I have wanted to return and I built up the experience in my head. My homecoming too did not disappoint. That our high expectations were met is the only similarity between our experiences though. Chaz had remembered Sweden as the ideal country with the ideal system of functionality and it fulfilled his hopes. I have never believed Spain to be the pinnacle of success nor the perfect model of self-governance. Its current track record severely begs to differ. But what I loved about Barcelona while I was there and what I was so eager to return to was the spirit of the city and the disposition of its people.

Barcelona is a city tied to its rich cultural and linguistic past and a city constantly at odds with its surroundings. The people who live there firmly believe in themselves and all that their land stands for. They are lively and vibrant, occasionally angry, but always passionate. The city is unique and special. It’s something easy to catch onto after only a few days there, but a sentiment you come to regard as your own after enough time living there. Catalunya is not Spain, and Barcelona is like nowhere else.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in my old territory, soaking up as much of the local energy as I could. For dinner, I headed to Ciutat Comtal, the sister restaurant of Cerveceria Catalana. Slightly less well known, it’s also slightly less crowded and they have a long bar, which makes for convenient solo eating. I fought my way toward the bar and picked out a stool at the very end. The woman next to me turned to tell me she and her husband would be vacating their seats soon, but because I was alone and had ordered a drink in Spanish, she assumed I was native and so spoke to me in English in the way my family always jokes that my father speaks to foreigners: slowly, loudly and with simple words. Trying hard not to laugh, I responded in my very New York-ish English, wished her well on the rest of her trip and turned to order my tapas en español.

The line between tourist and local was a hard one to ride in Spain and a very different experience than my other summer trips. In Asia, there was no disguising the fact that Chaz and I were foreigners. Between his blonde hair and my large camera, not to mention our maps and guidebooks, it was game over. At the Grand Canyon, of course we were tourists. Who isn’t? When I was last in Barcelona, I spent four months trying to convince people I belonged, by dressing in a nondescript way, picking up the local accent and just generally blending in. This time though, I wanted to take pictures and cause a scene — for blogging and for personal purposes — but at the same time, I still wanted to be mistaken for a local student. At the bar at Ciudad Comtal, for instance, I could have potentially passed when I first sat down alone and ordered in Spanish. But my food came and then I was that strange girl in the corner photographing her dishes, clearly not a local. And once the waitstaff start posing for your photos and using their few key English phrases, how can you argue you’re getting the authentic experience?

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Cracks about my photography aside, I did have a delicious dinner of some standard tapas favorites. Tapas for one is really difficult, so I just over-ordered and sampled from my various personal plates, which included a seafood montadito, the Catalan version of a pintxo; a pepper stuffed with tuna; escalivada, the same eggplant, pepper and onion tower we had the first night at Cerveceria Catalana; and some grilled veggies.

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Much as I love Barcelona, I know better than to traipse around solo at night and so I retired early in order to prepare for my departure, so that I could still have the morning to play.

I woke up early, but then remembered why Barcelona stays sleeping till at least 9 a.m. At 7:30, the city was still dark. I had grand ideas about storming the gates of Gaudi’s Park Güell, but thought better of it and instead of heading outside the city, dove back into its depths one final time. For as many visits as I made to the Boqueria, I had never been in the morning when it first opens and so I decided to catch a glimpse of the merchants unloading their produce and other wares before heading out. I was definitely the only tourist among the fishmongers taking their giant animals off ice and the fruit sellers unpacking cartons.

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IMG_7513For one final bite of authenticity before leaving the city, I returned to Cerveceria Catalana. Despite the fact that they fend off crowds and feed them tapas until late in the night, the bar opens at 8 a.m. in order to serve coffee and flautas to hungry locals on their way to work. I sat down at the bar and lingered for a while because I had time to spare, although in the time I sat there several cycles of people shuffled through, taking a moment to sip their cafe and read their newspapers before heading off the start the day. I had coffee and some manchego, which was a standard order, though one man to my left had a glass of wine and one to my right had a cognac. Nothing like starting the day strong. Inspired by a worker who took his sandwich to go, I requested a second flauta in tin foil — a preferable lunch to whatever Delta was going to serve me.

With my tuna and olive sandwich in hand, I made my way to the very familiar Barcelona airport terminal. Saying goodbye to the city was shockingly hard and I found myself getting a bit emotional, but it only reaffirmed what I had already determined: I would be back.

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An epicurean retrospective

Written by Emmy on 10 July 2011

I’ve been back in New York for over a week, and I have finally adjusted to the time difference and to the fact that everything I eat is not nose-running eyes-tearing mouth-numbing spicy. I’ve been catching up with all my family and friends and the first-ish question I am asked is, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” It’s a question I’m having a difficult time answering and when my grandmother saw me pause, she rephrased the question to something more in line with the bulk of my blog posts. “What was your favorite thing that you ate on the trip?”

Well, I still can’t entirely figure out how to answer that either. (I have often been accused of being indecisive.) But that question provides a much better launch point for my reflections of our voyage.

We ate a lot of food. I think that much is clear from the blog, not to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of photos. I think there were probably a few wagers going as to what size we would return as, and I am happy to say that our eating adventure did not take a lasting toll. (We did a lot of walking and Asian portions are small.) But all the food was intended for more than just gustatory pleasure. There is no better way to understand a culture than through the way people cook, shop for, obsess over and eat their food.

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Two years ago, I spent a semester living in Barcelona. While I was there, I was swept up in the romance of the three-hour lunch and the afternoon tapa. A couple weeks in, I had forsaken all cooking implements other than a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil. In Spain, food is inherently linked to family. The lengthy afternoon meal is meant to be enjoyed at home, and all business stops for it to happen. Coffee to-go is hard to find because you should linger over your morning cup and conversation. We don’t do “fast coffee,” I was once told by a native.

From these culinary traditions, it was possible to learn so much about the people and their values. Granted, I had four months to figure it out. But the way the Spaniards eat — and especially the Catalan people of Barcelona — speaks tremendous volumes about their temperament and lifestyle.

Though I did not have the luxury of four months of discovering Southeast Asian food, I think I got a pretty good taste (literally) in our four weeks there. Keeping this blog and focusing on food really kept us on task. At every meal, I felt compelled to analyze all aspects of my dish, whereas normally I might have just gobbled it up. Likewise, the blog kept us from straying too far away from the native cuisines. I can count on one hand the number of times we ate something non-local: chopped salads and tuna sandwiches in Hong Kong, Middle Eastern fare at Jerusalem Falafel in Chiang Mai, German-themed cuisine in Singapore and some Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies leftover from the plane.

Even without the blog we would have eaten quite a bit of Asian food, but there was a sense of imposed focus and a heightened eye for detail. (Often as we were typing away, we would comment out loud, “Who died and made me a food critic?”)

IMG_0936We really did not try to disguise the fact that we were tourists.

All of the cuisines we enjoyed shared ingredients and seasonings, but the results were so different. And it was not just the foods that struck me in each country, but also the ways in which they were served and enjoyed.

In Hong Kong, where evidence of British colonialism is still so clear, traditional Chinese restaurants where no English is spoken are found on the same blocks as settings for the imported tradition of high tea. Both are frequented, but I suspect overlap in clientele is limited. Dining out is a experience to be had by all on the little island. Property is expensive in Hong Kong, and so people rarely entertain in their homes, we learned. Instead, families and friends gather for rituals like the Sunday dim sum, where they fight for their food with the best of them.

Dim sum

Just miles away in Macau, the evidence of another western colonizer is still strong. Though Hong Kong and Macau are both now technically part of China, they have maintained their individuality. For Hong Kong, a strong and highly developed economy sets it apart from its motherland. Macau has casinos and historic Catholic churches, but they also have a cuisine unlike anything else in Asia. Where else can you find Portuguese egg tarts and pulled piglet jerky side by side? Though there are very few Portuguese speakers left in Macau, those who speak only Cantonese still know what vinho verde is.

In Thailand, tradition reigns strong too, but here, it is the traditions cultivated internally. Thailand prides itself on having been the only nation in the region to never have been colonized. As a result, the food lacks the European influence that we saw elsewhere. Thai food gets its strength from its ingredients because the recipes that have developed over time are based solely upon ingredients that can be grown and raised in the country itself. As we reflected while there, this gives the cuisine a beautiful consistency and simplicity. The same dish that can be found in the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok can also be found on a street corner in a back alley market.

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Betel leaf wraps at Cabbages and Condoms, and the do-it-yourself version at a street market (for $1)

Overall, food in Thailand was my favorite of the cuisines we sampled on our trip. It’s not really a fair fight; Thai food came into the ring with a strong preexisting bias. Of the foods we ate on our trip, I had the most previous experience eating Thai food. The way in which the Thai people cook also aligns with my preferences. All Thai dishes work to achieve a balance between four things: spicy, sour, sweet and salty. The inherent inclination toward citrus, chili and nuts fits exactly with how I like my food. Plus, the Thai build many of their dishes around chicken, shrimp or tofu (or all three) as opposed to the mystery meats found in Chinese cuisine.

I haven’t had Thai food since being back in the states, and I’m almost nervous to. With all the emphasis we’ve put on ingredients, how can a papaya salad on Long Island even begin to compare to one built from the markets of Thailand?

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On our first day in Bangkok, as we walked and tried to navigate the traffic, we came upon a series of picnic tables obstructing about 80 percent of the sidewalk. Each of the tables had condiments, a bowl of chili peppers, a bowl of greens and other typical toppings. As we continued, we saw more of the same tables, crowded with locals who were being served from a makeshift kitchen in what appeared to be the breakdown lane of the major road we were walking next to. “Wait,” we turned to each other. “This is a restaurant?”

IMG_2271It became a running joke, as we weaved our way through crowded streets and sidewalks, to point out a satay stand and its seated customers and remark, “Look! A restaurant.” But they really were all restaurants, and that is how the locals live. In the U.S., we view eating out as a treat — it often involves formality and you wind up taking more time and spending more money than if you had just eaten at home. But when the pad thai is less than a dollar, is fresh and piping hot, and you can catch up with a few neighbors while you eat it, isn’t that better than trying to gather the ingredients yourself?

When I told friends and family back home that we were eating tons of street food, I think they pictured Manhattan’s hot dog carts. We think of street food as something to be inhaled on the go, probably filled with chemicals and God-knows-what-else, and likely to be kind of dirty. I’m not going to suggest that Bangkok’s street stalls are about to earn full points for atmosphere and cleanliness, but it wasn’t a grungy experience. We couldn’t round a corner without finding an impromptu cafe or two, and the system functioned pretty flawlessly. And while, yes, we may not have been the most cautious traveler-eaters (though I promise we only drank bottled water), we never had a problem. These Thai women, who each specialize in a particular dish or two, know exactly what they are doing.

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My allegiances are still to the Thai people and their delicious cooking, but I will be the first to admit that I had never given Vietnamese food a fair try before. I’ve only eaten Vietnamese a handful of times, and I’ve never really known what to order. I either copied the people I was with or ordered something that sounded vaguely familiar. The former strategy sometimes works; the latter was always a failure, because if I recognized a dish, that probably meant it came from Thai food and had made it onto the menu because restaurants in the states tend more toward Asian fusion than authenticity, and as a result, these dishes are usually the weakest.

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But I went into Vietnam eager to try and experiment. The many noodle and soup dishes we had were good, but after the spicy noodles of Thailand, I found the experience almost bland sometimes. (I just don’t get pho, I’m sorry.) But while in Vietnam I discovered a reason to love the local food: do-it-yourself rice paper wraps.

I often gravitate toward composed dishes, where the spices and the flavors are already mixed together. But on our first day in Hanoi, I ordered a lunch deconstructed and instantly found a new favorite. We’ve waxed poetic on and on about the importance of ingredients, but it is so true. Put fresh fish, pineapple, mint, chili sauce and peanuts together and — voila — delicious. There’s more to Vietnamese food than I gave it credit pho. (Haha.)

Singapore is a country I would never have thought to visit if I didn’t know someone who lives there, and we would never have experienced it in the way that we did were it not for the Chia family.

IMG_0887Throughout our trip, we relied heavily on the advice of guidebooks to tell us where to eat. We were meticulous and obsessive, combing through our library of trusty resources — Lonely Planet, the country specific editions and “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”; Let’s Go, which previously helped me eat my way around Europe; Nancy Chandler while in Thailand; the New York Times’ 36 Hours feature and whatever other sources we happened to come across on days when our Internet was functioning particularly well. We had some truly stellar meals entirely thanks to the guidebooks. But we also had some mediocre meals at restaurants chosen solely because they had appeared in a guidebook. I don’t blame the guidebooks, because in countries where we could barely communicate, I don’t think we could have done a whole lot better on our own. But the difference between our dining experiences as tourists and our dining experiences traveling alongside a native were like night and day.

For the bulk of our trip, we alternated between street eating and fine dining. In the former category we found ourselves among locals, but in the latter, we were often in a room entirely composed of white people. With Vernie, we ate at establishments of all different kinds, but the consistent trend was that we were surrounded by Singaporeans. We ate in restaurants that did not appear in a single guidebook and that we could never have found on our own, even with the best of maps. I admittedly did not love every single item we tried, but the whole time we were traipsing around, I felt like we were doing Singapore right. I learned an extraordinary amount about the food and the customs, far more than in the other countries, because we heard it from the mouths of those who know it and ate it from their tables.

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The second-most informative experience, in terms of food and culture, was at cooking school. This brings me — finally — to the long-winded conclusion of my thoughts and the long-awaited answer to the question that started this all.

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What was my favorite moment of the trip? Cooking school.

It wasn’t until we attended cooking school that I really started to understand why exactly I liked the food in Thailand so much. There was something almost magical about visiting a market filled with Thai women doing their morning shopping, taking our ingredients back to a stove and learning to create a dish that every single one of those Thai women could have made. Being a part of the process, and not just on the receiving end at a restaurant, provided more of an inside lens into the food, how it developed and how it all came together.

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It’s one thing to order your food three-star spicy. It’s another thing entirely to see learn what that actually means, that if you add the red curry paste it will only get a little bit spicier, but that if you put a whole red birds-eye chili in the mix, the whole dish will come close to exploding. It made me appreciate it all more. When I started comparing my eighth papaya salad in Thailand to my third, I could begin to understand why one was straight-up fiery and one was spicy, disguised as sweet.

I do not mean to suggest I suddenly became a Thai cooking master. (I apologize to my roommates, who I think were hoping for mastery by now.) But what I’m trying to get at is that while eating is a terrific way to understand the role of food in a local culture, partaking in the culinary process from step one teaches you so much more. After all, my obsession with the Spanish diet really only blossomed once I got to work in my own Spanish kitchen.

My trip to Southeast Asia was only the tip of the food-discovery iceberg in that part of the world. So, I think we all know what that means. I now need to go on a cooking vacation.

Reflections on historical memory: Chiang Mai

Written by Chaz on 26 June 2011

Chiang Mai was very different from Bangkok, and not just in its northern food. The differences became apparent the moment we landed and our hotel picked us up. The ride from the airport to the hotel did not feature any traffic, and took about five minutes, a nice change from the 45-minute stop-and-go trip we had just had in Bangkok. This proved an apt symbol of the differences between the two cities. Though the drivers were no less aggressive or insane, Chiang Mai was much smaller and more parochial. As a result, it was much easier for us to get around, especially compared to Bangkok.

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But oddly, in central Chiang Mai, the ratio of Westerners to natives was much higher than in central Bangkok. Chiang Mai is apparently an expat center, which was surprising and a little unsettling. Here, deep in the hills, 370 miles from Bangkok, how did a thriving expat community develop? The concentration was especially stark at trivia night at U.N. Irish Pub, which was in English and didn’t seem to have a single Thai contestant. There is apparently also a push to make Chiang Mai a conference destination in southeast Asia, which was evident at our rather large, corporate-feeling hotel.

As a result of this community, as well as the strong tourist trade, Chiang Mai had something of a Disney World feeling to it. Nearly every business in the city, including our cooking school, every restaurant we went to, the many bars around town, the night bazaar, and even the wine cart we enjoyed, is predicated on the influx of dollars from Europe and America. The string of go-go bars near our hotel was not fueled by locals needing to blow off some steam.

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This made it a little harder for us to explore northern Thai cuisine, since most visitors don’t want it, preferring the Thai food they know from ethnic restaurants back home. Of course, we still managed to find it (and we ended up concurring with the rest of our tourist companions in our preferences), but its presence was much more muted than I would have expected.

Our trips outside Chiang Mai gave me much better insight into life in most of Thailand, outside its large cities. In Chiang Mai’s case, unlike sprawling Bangkok, we barely needed to leave the city limits to find ourselves in an extremely rural, underdeveloped area. As we wound our way through the mountains around Chiang Mai, we passed through areas formerly dominated by the opium trade, which has been all but eradicated by a program run by the central government to sponsor the growing of less socially harmful crops. Eating culture in the hills didn’t seem too disparate from that in the cities — we saw many of the same street-side restaurants made of plastic chairs and a wok.

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Northern Thailand was very different than Bangkok in pace and scale, but many of the same elements remained. Delicious food still thrust itself at us, sometimes literally, at every street corner. But, especially in Chiang Mai, I felt the sense of needing to escape the tourist influence whenever possible. I never felt that way in Bangkok, where it was much easier to do without even trying.

Thoughts from the tarmac

Written by Chaz on 2 June 2011

As we sit here in the Detroit airport, two things are on my mind: the length of the flight ahead of me, and the mystery of the places we’re about to explore.

Delta B777The furthest I’ve ever been from home, and the longest flight I’ve ever taken, was when I studied abroad in Stockholm in fall 2009. That flight was nearly eight hours, making this seventeen-hour flight over twice as long. As my friend Julia, who took the same flight earlier this year, put it, “You fly for five hours, and you’re like, I could be in Europe by now, and then you’re like, there are ten more hours to this flight.” I laid down the law a while ago when we bought our tickets and claimed the aisle seat, so I’ll be able to have a bit of room to stretch my legs, but even so I’m expecting to be permanently pretzel-shaped by the time we get there.

The second thing on my mind is more of a general feeling of awe about what lies ahead of us. Our friend Ben was asking me yesterday what I’m most excited about during the trip, and I replied that I’m most excited just to see what Asia is like. It sounds stupid, but having never been outside of the Western world, I’m very curious just to walk through the streets, hear the languages, experience the customs, and, of course, to eat the food. The timing of this trip — right after graduation — is perfect, too, since I’m hoping this will be an eye-opening, horizon-widening experience. If spending time in Sweden, an incredibly developed Western country, totally changed my perspective, I’m very interested to see how the next four weeks affect me.

Wish me luck in the back of the plane!