Eating in is better than eating out in Amsterdam

While the Dutch are famous for beautiful architecture and art, their cuisine has suffered a very dark past.  Potato porridge, pea soup and carb-heavy plates of lackluster flavor immediately come to mind, making me wonder how a country surrounded by Bocuse D’or winners can manage to remain so behind the culinary times.  There has been a recent movement toward contemporary Dutch cuisine, with native chefs returning from overseas restaurant stints who incorporate local ingredients with newly learned techniques.  However, I quickly discovered that fine dining in a city so cosmopolitan as Amsterdam, is still not so fine.

In keeping with their wonderful sense of artistry and craftsmanship, many restaurants in Amsterdam are true architectural beauties.  Dining by candlelight in a reclaimed glass greenhouse in the middle of a park at De Kas, throwing back oysters on a modernized retired ferry at Pont 13 and lunching in the bustle of a former church-turned-bright Moroccan oasis at Bazar all offer exciting backdrops for a fun dining experience.  Sadly the food always seemed to fall short of its surroundings, and expat residents generally concurred with my observation.

What can we expect from a country whose most popular fast food chain is a glitzed up version of a vending machine?  The gaudy red and yellow signs of Febo are visible on every street corner of Amsterdam, dreadful institutions of grease and fat that sell krokets, hamburgers and kaassouflé through small coin operated windows.  Bamihaps (deep fried mee goreng), kalfsvleeskrokets (veal croquettes) and frikadels (minced meat hot dogs) that have been sitting in a window for who knows how long simply cannot be good for you.

Tourists wandering into any one of the numerous Dutch pancake restaurants will be surprised to find dense heavy cakes smothered in bacon and swamps of melted cheese instead of the light fluffy ones that we are used to.  And the Dutch version of Belgian fries are soggy sticks of recycled oil suffocated with awful sauces and toppings.  How can one go wrong with fries, I thought, as I waited in a long line at the ever popular Vleminckx, but the signature patatje oorlong (‘war fries’) topped with mayonnaise, spicy peanut sauce and raw onions quickly made it to my list of most disgusting eats.  Dutch dining, at least in restaurants and street corners, seemed to emphasize grease and density over flavor and quality.

Amsterdam is a melting pot of cultures, and Dutch cuisine gets its much needed boost of flavor and energy from the Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccans, Ethiopians and Indonesians.  With an array of Indonesian restaurants to choose from, one can retreat for a rijsttafel rice table extravaganza when their palates tire of bland food.  Flaky buttery Surinamese rotis with duck curry and crispy green beans will also please the weary traveler.

Chinese dim sum on a lazy Sunday morning at Oriental Palace in Chinatown is another palatable dining option.  Pork siu mai, shrimp har gow, pan fried jiaozi, shrimp cheong fan, lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice, taro dumplings, turnip cakes and squid in black bean sauce are as good as any dim sum parlor in the US.

But I didn’t come all the way to Amsterdam just to eat Chinese dim sum and Surinamese rotis.  What exactly is Dutch cuisine, and how can I eat well in the Netherlands?  After some investigation and a lot of observation, I started to realize that the majority of locals stay at home and cook.  Dining out isn’t a big part of their culture, and the best meals are prepared at home using ingredients from local food shops, markets and delicatessens.  Take Kaashuis, a specialty cheese store filled wall to wall with artisanal goudas, Edam and Leyden.  The Dutch are as famous for their cheeses as they are for their windmills and wooden clogs, and with over 200 domestic and imported cheeses to choose from along with a smorgasbord of marinated olives, roasted tomatoes, beautiful breads and cured meats, one will never have a bad meal anymore.

Immediately next to Kaashuis is a butcher shop offering everything from housemade sausages hanging from the ceiling, pickled beef tongue, venison pâté, rabbit rillettes and a glorious hock of Jamón Iberico to shave.  Across the street from the butcher is a gorgeous sweets shop called Patisserie Kuyt bursting with the warm enticing scents of freshly baked pastries and biscuits.  The glass window cases are filled with sheets of dainty little chocolate ganaches, bonbons and decadent cakes.  Just a few stores down from Kuyt, like in any other neighborhood in the city, is a bakery selling baguettes, croissants, sourdough loaves, dense hearty rusks and various artisanal breads.

Perhaps the best part of shopping and eating in Amsterdam is the fresh seafood.  Close to Kaashuis and Patisserie Kuyt is a quaint little store called Fishes, offering the most beautiful selection of fish, cephalopods, mollusks and bivalves for a reasonable price.  Smoked eel, mackerel and salmon, all delightful Dutch specialties, are as good as it gets here in this clean and well organized shop.

And what about raw herrings, those shiny slippery fish that the Dutch so love and adore?  Herring stands can be found at any outdoor market and along the canals, crowded with locals who stop in for a quick snack, but after numerous samplings of these succulent treats across the city, I found the best ones at Fishes.  Here you won’t have to deal with rude herring-meisters who treat you like the tourist that you are, but will be welcomed by the generous staff who run this clean joint.  Herrings are best enjoyed during the early summer months when its flesh is at its sweetest, but even when I was there in the winter, they were oily, plump, tender and sweet, hardly requiring the chopped onions and gherkins that come as accompaniments (in fact, purists scorn their presence).  Hold the herring by its tail, tilt your head back and slide the whole fish down your throat as the Dutch do, or cut it up in bite sized pieces and eat it with a Dutch flag toothpick if you’re shy.

With easy access to the most wonderful specialty products in the neighborhood, coupled with fresh organic produce from the Noordermarkt farmers market, we were soon eating like royalty in our cozy apartment.  It didn’t make sense to throw away our Euros for consistently disappointing and appalling dining experiences.  Short of being invited to somebody’s house for a home cooked meal, this was the most economical, pleasant, delicious and sane way to enjoy ‘Dutch dining’.  Like a duck confit salad on a bed of organic baby greens, steamed artichokes, roasted red beets and tomatoes with a mustard vinaigrette.

Or fresh sardines from Fishes, pan fried in olive oil and dressed simply with salt and chopped parsley on toasted rusk.  Ingredients so fresh, so flavorful and incredible that they speak for themselves.

Whole smoked mackerel quickly became my favorite daily eats, with toasted rusk, fresh mâche salads, organic fruits, artisanal cheeses from Kaashuis and a bottle of wine.  Melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon from Fishes made it on the breakfast table every morning, while pickled beef tongue, smokey and slightly chewy in the best possible way, was another shining star in our daily routine.

When all else fails, there’s always chocolate space cakes, moist buttery snacks that taste innocently sweet.  Of course, you’ll still have to prepare some food for those outrageous munchies that will follow.

Random trivia:  Did you know that splitting a restaurant bill and ‘going Dutch’ comes from the concept of a Dutch door which is split horizontally in the middle so that the bottom half can stay shut to keep farm animals out, while the top half can remain open to let air in?

A day in Amsterdam

According to legend, Amsterdam was founded in the 12th century by 2 lost fisherman who vowed to build a town wherever they touched land.  Once they reached the banks of the Amstel River, their seasick dog anointed the chosen location with his vomit.  In a city famous for sloppy tourists indulging in legalized prostitution and drugs, such a legend seems sadly fitting.  Yet Amsterdam is so much more than that.  A melting pot of cultures and a juxtaposition of old and new – architecture, art, music and food- this picturesque canal city, with a clever ‘I amsterdam’ slogan, couldn’t be a more charming and tourist-friendly city to visit.

The famous tourist landmarks like the Heineken Experience, the Anne Franke House and the Van Gogh museum can give you a glimpse into an important segment of Dutch culture, but spending an entire day leisurely strolling along the scenic canals and taking in the city’s breathtaking landscape is a better way to spend your time in Amsterdam.  Leave your guidebook behind and weave through the labyrinth of narrow canals to see where your walk takes you.

You’ll want to start your adventure on a bicycle and join the other 540,000 cyclists that inhabit the city.  Only bike if you know how though, for riding through this beautiful city only seems like a charming idea.  You will not be humming your favorite tune while eating a herring, carrying a bunch of tulips and waving to smiling children on the street- in reality, it’s a hair raising dangerous mission that can turn into a violent contact sport at any turn. Bumpy uneven paths make for teeth rattling off-road riding and sharp inclined turns are not kind to unaccustomed tourists.  I myself ended up with a broken elbow and a sprained ankle on this trip.

In addition, locals will spot you from a mile away and teach you a thing or two about road etiquette through passive aggressive measures.  And if you manage to survive Amsterdam’s extreme cycling, don’t breathe a sigh of relief and let your guard down when you park, for it will be gone if you forget the heavy chain-linked lock (150,000 get stolen annually).  Make note of where you park your bike too, for it can easily be lost in a sea of others.

“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.” – Flex Marti-Ibanez, Spanish writer.

165 canals criss cross through the medieval city, circulating through 3 main artery canals called Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, that form semi-circular rings around the Old Centre (Oud Centrum).  These canals, crossed by 1,400 bridges and averaging 3 meters deep, are dotted with colorful boats of all sizes and flanked by rows of tightly stacked tall lean houses.

The rippling reflections of lush green trees and expansive blue skies on the murky waters of the canals are a sight to revel at, hiding some 10,000 bicycles, 22 million gallons of sludge and any one of 50 corpses of drunken fools that tragically fall into the waters every year.

The Netherlands was once one of the world’s greatest shipping powers, and at one point in history it controlled more trading ships than the combined fleets of France and England, as well as more than half of all ships sailing between Europe and Asia.  Amsterdam’s maritime legacy and prosperity can be seen in the decorative facades of the houses that line the canals, which were built in the 17th and 18th century for wealthy merchants.  All houses are built with large windows that allow pedestrians to peek in to admire the opulent interiors and beautiful furniture.  One could easily spend a whole week walking around the city and marveling at the unique architecture.

Amsterdam is built on reclaimed marshland, and all structures are built on pilings sunk deep into soft soil, which has caused many of them to sink, lean and shift over the years.  Houses are stacked adjacent to each other for reinforcement, but continued ‘leaning’ of houses and entire blocks is easily visible from the street if you look at them from the side.  Some houses appear to tilt forward, while others look lopsided and askew in all directions, creating an optical illusion of a warped misshapen world.

On any given day in Amsterdam, you’ll be able to find an array of outdoor markets, from the Nieuwmarkt flea market and the Noordermarkt organic farmers market to the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter De Pijp.  For those wanting a more urban shopping experience, venture to the ‘Nine Streets‘ in the heart of the city’s canal district for kitschy boutiques, specialty products, designer clothing and beautiful antiques.

For a uniquely Dutch shopping experience, trek down to Bloemenmarkt (the world’s only floating flower market) on the southern side of the Singel canal where you will find an array of flowers in full bloom if in season, or tulip bulbs and interesting seeds of all shapes and colors if not.

They even sell cannabis seeds which, obviously, won’t be of any use unless you’re planning to settle down in Amsterdam.

On every street corner and in every neighborhood, even the nice family-oriented quiet neighborhoods, are the infamous ‘coffee shops’ selling marijuana, hash and various drug paraphernalia that include coke bottles with special little spoons for elegant snorting.  There are around 300 establishments in the city where you can choose from an array of high quality hash and potent cannabis, and shops will provide you with rolling paper, bongs, pipes, vaporisers and stellar atmosphere to heighten your experience.

Stay away from the potent hydroponic weed which will render you unconscious, and stick with the mild organic type for smooth riding.  After you emerge from the coffee shop, you may want to ditch your bicycle and opt for the tram until you regain normal brain function.

Wander through hidden medieval alleyways, sleepy canals and gothic neighborhoods- you never know what new discovery awaits you around the corner.

If you manage to find the secret doorway that leads into the enchanting courtyard of Begijnhof, you will find yourself in one of the most quiet and serene places in the entire city.  Established in the 14th century, this peaceful enclosure is made of former almshouses, run by the Catholic Beguine order, that surround a small church.  They used to house unmarried ladies who took vows of chastity, but are now some of the most prime real estate in the city.

A perfect follow up to Begijnhof is a tour of the nearby Red Light district, where one will see a plethora of sex shops, prostitute booths, cinemas, bars and live shows.  A small brass bosom inlaid into the pavement in front of Oude Kerk, a wooden chapel and Amsterdam’s oldest building, marks the center of Sin City.

A brass prostitute statue will also officially welcome you to this oldest and most notorious part of Amsterdam, which generates more than 500 million Euros worth of revenue per year.  Prostitution in Amsterdam dates back to the 14th century when sailors arrived in need of female company, and newly widowed women who lost their husbands at sea needed a way to make a living.

The first visit to the Red Light District is always an eye-opening experience.  Every street is packed with door after door of scantily clad women standing in red neon-lit doorways of small rooms.  Prostitutes, often wearing provocative lace lingerie, are arranged like items in a grocery store, and passersby check the merchandise as they go window shopping.  Some strike a pose and get in your face while others, bored, sit on stools and pick at their nails.

Whatever your type you will find them here- blonde, overweight, Asian, transsexual- and while the stark display of erotica may be shocking, the reality of this centuries old profession in Amsterdam is that it is legal, strictly governed, highly patrolled and protected by police, accepted by the local community and unionized.

Adjacent to the Red Light District is a small quaint Chinatown marked by the colorful Fo Guang Shan Temple and lined with  dim sum parlors, antique shops, Chinese herb shops and cozy cafes like Latei.

After a nice morning biking and walking through the city, now it’s time to see it from a different, and perhaps more exciting and beautiful perspective.  With over 46 miles of waterways in the city, a leisurely afternoon canal cruise starting at Herengrachet to the Amstel river through to Prinsengracht is in tow.

Ignore the massive enclosed sightseeing boats, crowded with hoards of loud tourists, and find a small private boat to take you around.

Suddenly you will find yourself catching a cool breeze with the wind in your hair, far away from the sounds of traffic, gliding above the surface of the water with a full panoramic view of Amsterdam at your fingertips.

You will even start to notice the little things, like the smallest house in Amsterdam, a barely existent tiny narrow structure sandwiched between 2 buildings.

Look closely, for there’s a secret doorway under a canal belt- it’s the entrance to Brug 9, the hottest jazz club in the city.  Ever wonder how live music will sound in an underground brick cellar?  There’s only one way to find out.

Choosing a small private boat over a large tourist cruiser will give you access to the smaller canals and the hand-operated wooden drawbridges that date back to the 17th century.  It will also give you an opportunity to satiate your voyeuristic tendencies while you quietly float past large open windows of house boats, going unnoticed by its inhabitants who scratch their heads and yawn as they stretch out on the living room couch.

Touring the city is hard work, calling for a well deserved reward of hearty brews at the neighborhood bar where you will find locals engaging in friendly conversation over artisanal ales and bokbiers.

Slide up to the wooden bar at any cozy neighborhood ‘Brown cafe’, which is the Dutch version of a British pub.  Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, brown cafes are named so because of their dark brown nicotine-stained walls that are a result of years of smoking patrons.  Order beer in a small vaasje or miniscule fluitje size to go with a bowl of nuts and wile away the rest of the afternoon chatting it up with your new friends.

When it’s time to head back home, you’ll find that the sky has turned a deep indigo blue against the soft orange glow of streetlamps as Amsterdam settles into dusk and your content mind settles down from the exciting day you just spent discovering the beautiful city on foot.

 

Random trivia:  Did you know that approximately 12 cars accidentally reverse into the murky waters of the Amsterdam canals each year?

Latei cafe- Amsterdam, Netherlands

The intricate canals of beautiful Amsterdam run through all of the historic neighborhoods and marketplaces, lined by leaning rows of tall narrow houses stacked side by side.  What better way to spend a warm lazy Sunday afternoon than to take a leisurely stroll admiring this unique architecture and discovering the city.  Weekends are an especially good time to explore outdoor markets and bazaars on foot or on bicycle, the preferred mode of transportation in the city.

At the edge of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light district, leading into Chinatown, is Nieuwmarkt which means ‘new market’. A majestic building called De Waag, originally a gate leading into the Medieval city wall and later functioning as a weighing house, stands tall in the center of the square as Nieuwmarkt’s landmark.  On Saturdays Nieuwmarkt is a bustling farmers market, and on Sundays it comes alive as an antiques market where one must rummage through a lot of junk to find those rare treasures.

More than antiques there seems to be a lot of random clothes, boots, jewelry and souvenir stalls at Nieuwmarkt, but it’s still a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends before stopping in to any of the restaurants and cafés in the square.  With such a peaceful and laid back atmosphere, it’s hard to believe that during World War II the square was used by the Nazis as a collection point for Jews who had been rounded up to be sent to concentration camps.

A perfect place to take a break after browsing at Nieuwmarkt is Latei, a quaint and lovely little café where you can sip on cappuccino while continuing your afternoon of flea market shopping.  Virtually everything in the restaurant, except for the servers and customers (even though it’s close to the Red Light district), are for sale.


Stepping into Latei is like going through the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ famous Chronicles of Narnia into a magical attic of beautiful knick-knacks.  Delicate vintage chandeliers crowd the ceilings, each with a handwritten price tag dangling from a draping handle, while colorful travel bags, decorative mirrors, dated posters and random toys stud every inch of wall space.

Order a warm croissant with butter and jam to go with freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast while reading the day’s issue of De Telegraaf, or sink your teeth into the Dutch goat cheese sandwich with a side of soup for lunch at the small table by the large window which is optimal for people watching.  On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays they also serve vegetarian Indian food for dinner.

Finish off your meal with a satisfying wedge of warm Dutch apple pie with a shot of espresso or a cup of hot chocolate.  All of this eating and drinking is, of course, part of test driving Latei’s tableware to see if it’s something you want to buy and take home.

Whether upstairs in the little loft or down under the staircase in the semi-private den, every nook and cranny in this small café is filled with fun stuff- second hand furniture that may include creaky wooden chairs and red leather banquettes from a bygone diner, kitschy eyeglasses displayed on cut out green paper faces, and even a shiny silver disco ball scattering little specks of light onto the vintage wallpaper.

Everything has a price tag at Latei, but even if you leave empty handed, a lazy afternoon spent at this wonderful café debating everything from world politics to celebrity gossip with friends over apple pie and coffee is priceless.

Latei

Zeedijk 143
1012 AW Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 6257485

Random trivia:  Did you know that ‘antiques’ are defined as objects that are at least 50 years old? ‘ Collectibles’, on the other hand, are possible antiques of the future and are generally less than 50 years old.

Noordermarkt- Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam boasts 12 daily outdoor markets and 15 markets that are open one or two days of the week, spread across the beautiful city that is built around picturesque canals.  At the Waterlooplein Flea Market one can find second hand clothing, while vintage trinkets and exotic spices can be haggled over at the largest market called Albert Cuypmarkt.  Perhaps the most photographed market in Amsterdam is the Bloemenmarkt, the only floating flower market in the world, housed on a long succession of boats on the Singel canal where one can enjoy tulips of various colors, even a rare black type.

On a wet autumn Saturday morning, I did as the locals did and rode my bicycle, holding an umbrella in one hand and wearing a big rain poncho, to the Noordermarkt organic farmers market in the Jordaan district to secure my week’s supply of greens and bread.

Noordermarkt, which means Northern Market, dates back to 1616 and was originally named Prinsenmarkt after the nearby Prinsengracht canal that runs along the length of the city.  In 1623, a large church called Noorderkerk was built in the town square, and for many years the current market site was used as a graveyard.  Eventually the market was revived and it took on the name of Noordermarkt to commemorate the holy landmark.

During World War II, the Noordermarkt square became the site of the February Strike, the first public protest of non-Jewish citizens against the deportation of Jews by the Nazis.  Now it is a peaceful and beautiful square lined by posh cafés and restaurants, coming alive on Saturdays as the only organic farmers market in the city.

I started filling my wicker basket with plump tomatoes, hefty beets, salad greens and fresh herbs while chatting with the vendors about how best to prepare them.  Despite the rain, the market was bustling with people from all walks of life who were enjoying this weekend tradition as much as I was.  Vibrant colors of ripe fruits and vegetables filled each stall, and alluring aromas of freshly baked breads and cheese samples drew me in from all directions.

An oyster stall at the market was the perfect place to rest my feet and indulge in some tasty bites.  David Hervé La Royale Cabanon oysters had a lovely sweetness that lingered forever on my palate.  A young boy, who looked around 8 years old, threw back the Royale like a seasoned veteran and gave me the thumbs up sign with a big smile.

The oyster vendor recommended that we try the Umami oyster, a plump oyster that shocked me with its initial jolt of saltiness, which then gradually and slowly turned into an intense brininess with a final finish of potent sweetness.  It was a powerful and vigorous oyster, unlike the more understated and elegant flavors of the Royale.

The Dutch are known for their rustic breads, and not surprisingly, there were at least 10 different bread stalls at the Noordermarkt.  Freshly baked muffins, some topped with sweetened fruits and others with herbs and vegetables, rye rusks, whole wheat loaves, braided pretzels, heavy spelt cylinders and flaky croissants colorfully lined each counter, quickly being snatched up by hungry customers.

Large wheels of cheeses, from the famous Gouda to the mellow Edam, soft goat’s cheese to buttery triple cream cheese, were on display for all to see and buy, and every vendor was more than happy to guide me in finding the right ones to satisfy my palate.

After a morning of shopping and sampling, the best way to wind down is to nosh on the best apple pie in the city at Winkel Café, situated right in the Noordermarkt square.  In fact, the organic farmers market got its start in 1987 when the owner of Winkel set up organic vegetable stalls in front of his café, hoping to draw more customers into his store. The cozy café is always crowded, day or night, rain or shine, with locals and tourists. 

Several Hollandse appeltaarts (Dutch apple pie) come up the dumbwaiter from the kitchen onto the main counter, warm and fresh, and served met slagroom (with whipped cream) for those wanting that extra sugar kick. During the rush, Winkel will easily dish out up to 10 pies an hour.

As the rain came pouring down on us at the end of our shopping spree, we darted into Winkel Café and squeezed into the communal table next to 10 other customers who were already licking up their pies. After warming our bodies and our hands on tall glasses of mint tea, we dug our spoons into our apple pies to experience a heavenly dessert like no other.  Thick soft chunks of sweet apples coated with cinnamon, nestled inside an even softer encasing of weightless crust that was delicate yet full of flavor at the same time.  No need for whipped cream on these apple pies, they were just perfect on their own.

The Winkel Cafe

Noordermarkt 43
1015 NA Amsterdam, Netherlands
020 6230223

The Noordermarkt organic farmers market is on the corner of Prinsengracht and Westerstraat, and open on Saturdays from 9.00 am – 3.00 pm.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar- Vancouver, BC Canada

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” the famous saying goes, conveying the notion that visitors should respect and understand other cultures by following local customs and traditions, but when I travel, my motto is “When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.”  One of the best ways to enjoy travel is to indulge in local delicacies, regional specialties and seasonal foods- a trip to Japan is not complete without sushi, a stroll through Paris is meaningless without freshly baked buttery breads, Italy is not the same without a real homemade pasta dish, and delectable tapas washed down with vino tinto is a must in Spain.  On a recent trip to Vancouver in June, I was determined to have BC (British Columbia) spot prawns, which were at the peak of their harvest season, not to mention Canadian salmon, fresh oysters and other locally caught seafood.

There are many seafood establishments in Vancouver, given its obvious geographical location, but we opted for a casual night out at Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar in the trendy neighborhood of Yaletown.  Blue Water Cafe is housed in an old warehouse with red brick and wooden beam construction on Hamilton Street, a brick-paved sidewalk lined with hip boutiques, galleries and restaurants in what used to be Vancouver’s garment district.  Heading the kitchens of Blue Water cafe since 2003 is Executive Chef Frank Pabst, who has trained at Michelin-star rated restaurants in Germany and France, and sushi master Yoshi Tabo who tends to the raw bar.  Together they serve exceptional fresh seafood fare using wild and sustainable harvest seafood at this restaurant that is noted for being a founding member of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program.

Fresh seafood is the clear attraction in this beautiful restaurant where diners come for the casual atmosphere and exceptional service in the large dining room decked out in rustic maritime decor.  Many were indulging in the Blue Water Cafe Seafood Tower, a three-tiered ocean extravaganza with oysters, prawns, tuna, clams, mussels, ceviche, smoked salmon, lobster and sushi rolls, paired with local BC Rieslings and Chardonnays, while others snuggled up to the sushi bar for sashimi and rolls.  We were lucky enough to snag the last serving of fresh BC spot prawns, served raw with soy sauce and wasabi.  These local crustaceans were saturated with sweetness and so plump that they had a nice sharp crunch on the bite.

My favorite way to enjoy prawn heads is a simple deep fry with a generous squeeze of citrus.  These BC spot prawns, which were swimming around in the tank until the minute before preparation, were some of the best that I’ve ever had, full of savory green tomalley and bright orange eggs that imparted an indescribable umami to each bite.  BC spot prawn harvest season begins in May and only lasts for 8 weeks, so we were extremely lucky in timing our trip to overlap with this season.  We missed the annual BC spot prawn festival which is held at False Creek Fisherman’s Wharf, and didn’t get to sample all of the spot prawn specialty dishes at famed local restaurants like Vij’s and C Restaurant, but this simple raw preparation of fresh prawns at Blue Water Cafe was enough to satisfy my cravings.

I was ecstatic to see a whole page dedicated to oysters on their menu, with selections heavily weighted on local BC bivalves and a few from Washington state and the East Coast.  Of course, we ordered a BC platter, starting with the small plump Kusshi oysters from Cortes Island with a smooth and soft buttery texture.  Going from smallest to largest, the next were the Black Pearls from Quadra Island with a light and refreshing lettuce finish.  The Effingham Inlets from Barkley Sound, plump oysters in long blond shells, had a stronger flavor with a briny finish.  Beach Angels from Read Island were my favorite with its plump fatty flesh and pleasant briny finish.  Marina’s Top Drawer from Cortes Island had a flatter shallow shell with sweet fruity flesh while Fanny Bays from Nanaimo Bay, usually my favorite type of oyster, had a disappointingly muddy taste.

Dungeness crab salad, shrimp cocktail, baked scallops, or smoked sockeye salmon terrine?  All of the seafood appetizers sounded wonderful, but we went with the Albacore tuna carpaccio, a spice crusted thinly sliced delicately flavored carpaccio presented as a Niçoise salad.  Sweet smokey roasted red peppers, crunchy haricot verts, sliced eggs, crunchy cucumbers, tart radish slices, salty kalamata olives and microgreens all dressed in a wonderful anchovy vinaigrette were the perfect complement to the locally caught white tuna.

All of their seafood entrees sounded divine, like the white sturgeon with chioggia beets, miso sake glazed sablefish and Arctic char with braised leeks and fennel.  Our server was enthusiastic about the special of the day, grilled wild salmon with romesco sauce and broccolini served on a bed of basmati rice, chorizo, squid and shellfish beurre blanc saffron sauce, and so were we.  There’s really nothing better than locally caught wild proteins prepared with simple ingredients that enhance their natural inherent flavors.

A trio of sorbets- an incredibly tart cassis, a sweet guava and a creamy banana- garnished with berries and sliced star fruit ended our wonderful seafood dinner at Bluewater Cafe.

There are an infinite number of seafood establishments in Vancouver that offer the local ocean’s bounty, from oyster shacks and Chinese dim sum carts, to sushi bars and harbor view fine dining restaurants.  With seafood so fresh and flavorful, you almost can’t go wrong at any seafood joint, but the Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar is a true gem where you can savor both Western and Eastern preparations of fish, crustaceans and bivalves in one sitting.  A leisurely after-dinner stroll along the brick-paved streets of Yaletown for people watching and window shopping is the perfect way to walk off a full and content belly.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar

1095 Hamilton Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 5T4, Canada
(604) 688-8078

Random trivia: Did you know that spot prawns are protandric hermaphrodites, born as and spending their first 2-3 years of life as males, then changing into females to lay eggs at the end of their life cycle?

Japa Dog- Vancouver, BC Canada

“Travel north.  It will bring you good luck,” my feng-shui studying friend told me one day.  And with that, my trip to Vancouver, Canada was planned on a whim.  Despite having traveled all over the world from Sierra Leone to Laos, and Cuba to the Canary Islands, I had never set foot in Canada.  I suppose it’s the comfort of knowing that I could go any day, given the proximity to the US- the same excuse of ‘local laziness syndrome’ that applies to trips within the US that I haven’t been able to materialize yet.  With the excitement of the Winter Olympics this year, it seemed only natural to travel way north past Napa, Portland and Seattle up to Vancouver to seek good luck, good fortune and of course good food.  Once my plane ticket and accomodations were secured I started researching Vancouver restaurants online, and was quite surprised to find the most buzz not in a 5 star hotel restaurant or in a harbor-view seafood dining establishment, but in a street food cart called Japa Dog.

Japa Dog, a street vendor specializing in hot dogs reinterpreted with Japanese flavors, was started by Noriki Tamura who moved to Vancouver in 2005.  Combining traditional comfort food with haute ingredients and giving it a fresh new twist seems to be the trend these days- maple bacon cupcakes, squash blossom & burratta pizza, kimchi kalbi tacos and black truffle & foie gras burgers.  Who isn’t reinventing our beloved staples?  Spruced up hot dogs aren’t a new concept either.  Hot Doug’s in Chicago is probably the first place that comes to mind for their innovative ingredients and flavor combinations.  Their signature foie gras dog had to be removed from the menu for obvious reasons, but they’re still an epic establishment.   Los Angeles has its share of gourmet wiener joints too.  Let’s Be Frank tops their grass-fed beef dogs with a marvelous Indian pickled pepper relish, Downtown Dogs serves a beef dog with avocado, arugula, basil aioli, tomatoes and fried onions,  Dogzilla demonstrates Japanese flair with their yakisoba and furikake dogs, and Wurstküche offers exotic dogs such as buffalo, alligator, duck, and my favorite rattlesnake and rabbit with jalapeño .

Japa Dog has several locations, and I was happy to discover that there was one practically outside of my hotel lobby on the corner of Burrard and Smithe.  The Burrard strip, lined with boutiques, hotels, tall office buildings, restaurants and the occasional historical church has an energetic Manhattan vibe.  Buses and yellow taxis whiz through the city grid as pedestrians with the haste and determination of a New Yorker scurry by.  It’s the perfect backdrop for a hot dog stand, only this one has happy and energetic Japanese staff in bright orange uniform ready to shower you with plenty of pep.  It was after the lunch rush on a weekday, but there was still a long line of tourists and locals waiting for their Japanese dogs.  I can’t imagine the craziness that these street corners experienced during the Olympics- news reports say that Japa Dog was one of the most popular pit stops for international visitors who waited for up to an hour in the winter chill for their hot dogs.

Japa Dog offers standard dogs such as all-beef, Kobe beef , turkey, kurobuta pork, jalapeño & cheese, bratwurst and veggie, but these are not what attract the masses. It’s the unique themed dogs, dressed up with classic Japanese ingredients like daikon radish and dried seaweed, that diners adore.  In true Japanese spirit, Japa Dog carts even sell dagashi, old-fashioned snacks and candies that evoke a strong sense of nostalgia for people like myself who grew up in Japan.

The Japa Dog staff recommended the Terimayo dog, the most popular selling item.  An all-beef dog tucked in a soft steamed sesame bun with teriyaki sauce, drizzles of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, fried onion and dried nori.  Japa Dog’s slit sausages are first boiled then lightly grilled to order, giving them a nice snappy crunch with a juicy moist interior.  Due to the immense popularity of the Terimayo concept, all of their other dogs can be made Terimayo style.

My favorite was hands down the Oroshi dog, a bratwurst topped with generous heaps of tangy grated daikon radish, special soy sauce and chopped green onions.  The light flavor of the bratwurst with the refreshing bitterness of the oroshi daikon was amazing.  Oroshi daikon is a staple in Japanese cuisine, adding texture and flavor to grilled fish, shabu-shabu, tofu and minced meat patties, but who knew that it could liven up a hot dog so perfectly?

With room only for one more dog, I skipped the Okonomi dog made with kurobuta pork sausage, okonomi-yaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, fried cabbage and shaved bonito flakes, and instead went for the Ume dog.  The light flavors of the oroshi dog made me want something even more refreshing.  Ume is short for umeboshi, salty and sour pickled plums, and it was used to garnish a bratwurst with thinly shaved onions.  I was hoping for a prominent ume flavor, one so strong and sour that it would make me pucker my lips and squeeze my eyes shut, but it was rather mild, possibly tempered for non-Japanese palates.

Other unique wieners at Japa Dog include the Edamame dog, a bratwurst impregnanted with whole green edamame beans, and a Kurogoma kimchi dog made with a turkey smokie with toppings of black sesame and kimchi.  Research revealed a Misomayo dog with Japanese mayonnaise and miso paste, but perhaps it’s been buried in the Japa Dog vault as I didn’t see it at any of the current carts.

Eating a juicy hot dog on the busy street corners of an urban jungle makes for a satisfying meal, but enjoying a delicious gourmet dog with Japanese flavor and flair is a special experience.  Vancouver’s got a good thing going in Japa Dog, which is why the owner has his eye on expanding to the US.  What better place to start than New York, where he plans to open a Japan Dog by the end of the year.  City dwellers will undoubtedly take to these loveable trendy wieners that have already gotten a stamp of approval by Anthony Bourdain in the Vancouver episode of No Reservations.

Japa Dog

available at various street corners in Vancouver, BC Canada

Random trivia: Did you know that the average hot dog is consumed in 6 bites?

“The noblest of all dogs is the hot dog- it feeds the hand that bites it.”  -Lawrence J. Peter

Mercado Hidalgo- Tijuana, Mexico

The vibrant colors of locally grown peppers, the hefty weight of native root vegetables in your hand, the prickly skin of tropical fruits at its peak, the seductive aromas wafting from busy food stalls that activate your hunger, the energetic sounds of lively exchanges and transactions- these are the very elements that define markets and in turn local cultures.  Whether it’s a visit to your neighborhood farmer’s market in the US, a night market in Turkey or a floating market on the Mekong River, these are the places where you can get a vivid glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the local customs.

Nothing defines our traditions more than the food that we eat, and nothing reflects who we are more clearly than our local markets.  A morning spent weaving through labyrinths of vendors and stalls can transport you into the warmth and comfort of a cocina where families gather for their daily meals.  It is here, in the city’s biggest kitchen, where you can feel the heartbeat of the city’s core from where food trickles through its blood vessels into every household.  In return, bountiful offerings from the land and the sea are brought back to the market every day to continue the endless circle of life.  The market is a place of nourishment and a way of life.

One such market is Mercado Hidalgo, a sprawling indoor-outdoor market in the middle of Tijuana’s urban jungle.  This mercado got its start in the mid 1900′s when a group of Tijuana vendors selling produce out of their car decided to establish a permanent location.  After several moves, it settled into its final and current location at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada and Avenida Independencia in 1984.  In keeping with the true spirit of local markets, Hidalgo is owned by its merchants who run the 80 open air stalls.  3 generations of families have worked here, creating a unique community with its own history and culture.

The market even has its own chapel, honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, where vendors make their final rite of passage upon passing away.  This market is not only a place of tradition, it is a place of family, home and life.

Even as a tourist, it’s easy to feel the rhythm of this unique marketplace where you can feel, taste, touch and smell the essence of a Mexican pueblo.  There is a palpable richness in the air and an abundance of resonant energy- it’s everywhere you look, in the frijoles, the maiz, hierbas and frutas.  A diversity of dried chiles line the racks, reflecting the unique flavors of Mexican cuisine- chile de arbol, pasilla, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, morita, and California.

Skillful men and women shave prickly spines off of nopales, preparing them for the scrumptious dinners that will nourish the mass. It is in the conversations and interactions with these merchants that one can begin to get an understanding of the deep roots of Hidalgo.

Jamaica, tamarindo and chayote from my memorable dinners in Tijuana were displayed in various shapes and sizes.

Carnicerias and queserias piled high with fresh food stood back to back in the tight hallway spaces that never ceased to attract both locals and tourists alike.  Deep fried crispy chicharrones looked familiar to me, and large jars of pickled white strips of tender chicharrones were a novelty, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like the chicharrones prensado, a gigantic mound of densely compressed pig parts so real that it flaunted the occasional tufts of pig hair.

Little girls squealed with delight in the crammed dulcerias where they jumped in joy for caramels and chocolates while older folks took to tequila flavored gummies and frutas cristalizadas with nostalgia.  Dried and candied oranges, pineapples and papayas proved to be cheap and satisfying treats to chew on while perusing through neighboring stores selling ceramics, tableware, cookware and molcajetes.

It’s not just about browsing and being a passive observer- one must be willing to fully plunge into the rhythm of a market with an open mind, for it is only through meaningful intimate interactions with the vendors that you can even begin to comprehend the local way of life.  Perhaps an old lady will give you a few extra oranges with your purchase and ask you to come back again the following day for her lemons.  A street vendor may invite you to their home for dinner after seeing the way you marveled over their tacos de lengua.  That grumpy old butcher, who isn’t grumpy at all once you get to know him, will tell you which stand to go to for the juiciest tomatoes. You never know what can happen at a market, but you’ll always know that whatever does will become a magical experience and a beautiful memory, and be translated into an appreciation for life that you will take back to your culture.

Go to Mercado Hidalgo on your next visit to Baja California and feel the spirit of Tijuana with your own skin, and be sure to wash down those buttery tacos de sesos with a cup of freshly squeezed cane juice to complete the experience.  Repeat as necessary.

(A very short) Passage to India

I have heard many things about India.

That one will either love it or hate it.  That one will inevitably and surely fall very ill on their first visit, and that it will be a sickness like no other.  That any sense of rationality or reason that one has, will be challenged and defied in India.  That one must spend a minimum of 3 months to get a feel for India.  That no matter how long one spends in India, one will never understand it.

I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to visit India.  I don’t know why, but I always felt that I should put off going to India until I felt that I was ready.  I wanted to be in a good state of mind, in a good place in my life, and with more experienced eyes to be able to see what I was meant to see.  I wanted to make this virgin passage to India with a maturity and curiosity that would be worthy of experiencing the soul of this beautiful country.  Little did I know that I was in for some serious spiritual ass kicking.

My brother and his family moved to New Delhi a couple of years ago, and it was the perfect opportunity for me to visit them. It always makes a difference to know somebody who lives there and to have a place to stay. They have already experienced the traveler’s diarrhea, the stomach aches and numerous other mystery illnesses that come with living in a city like New Delhi, and they warned me to be careful with food, water and frequent hand washing.  They were so concerned with making sure that I didn’t get sick, that for the first 2 weeks of my 3 week visit, we stuck to home cooked food and upscale restaurants.  The restaurant scene is quite lively in New Delhi with an explosion of establishments offering authentic global cuisine, and I was excited to explore this part of the city.

I had amazing Indian food at Sahib, Sindh and Sultan Restaurant in Gurgaon.  A Sindh Thandai drink made with milk, crushed almonds, saffron and cardamom was delicious.  Tandoori Malai prawns flavored with lemon were plump and juicy, and the traditional dahl was rich.  Their specialty, Butter Chicken curry or Murg Makhani, was one of the best that I have ever had.  It was so delicious that I was scraping every last bit of curry off the spoon with my garlic naan.

The Smoke House Deli, inside of the Emporium Mall, was a relative newcomer to the restaurant scene. The adorable interior with stenciled wallpaper and printed frames was too cute for words, and the clean and sterile environment of this deli-restaurant was almost surreal.  I felt like I was in a Parisian bistro, far away from the polluted streets of New Delhi right outside of the building where dirty street dogs sniffed through heaps of garbage on the pavement.

I had a glass of refreshing kiwi, cantaloupe melon, lemonade and jasmine tea cooler with big succulent chunks of fresh fruit. We even had imported Italian wine, a Rubicon Trebbiano, with the house special filet mignon, a tenderloin steak with rosemary emulsion, and a lightly smoked lamb shank with tamarind hash and rosemary quenelle.  The food wasn’t to die for, but I was impressed to be having contemporary cuisine in the heart of this city.  The menu offered soy and vegan options in addition to angus burgers and ham sandwiches, making it apparent that there was a large ex-pat community in New Delhi that the restaurant was trying to target.

I couldn’t help but feel uneasy and uncomfortable stepping out of the restaurant and into the shopping mall where wealthy Indian madams toting Louis Vuitton bags and flashing their decadently embellished saris pranced from the Gucci store to the Armani store while their humble chauffeurs waited outside.  How ironic that these drivers relieve their full bladders on building walls and eat 50 rupee street food for lunch while their employers recklessly use Platinum credit cards for pleasure?  The privileged rich had a greed and hunger for precious gems and stones for which India is very popular, and I saw many women flaunting their gigantic rocks.  Yet they paid their servants and maids mere pennies for long hours of intense labor.  I was starting to see numerous contrasts and contradictions in this city of New Delhi.

The streets of New Delhi were always congested, from dawn till dusk, with a mix of rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis and chauffered import cars. Sacred yet filthy cows dominated traffic while monkeys, dogs, camels and goats also stirred up more back ups on the main roads.  On one occasion, on our way to drop off my niece at her school, we witnessed a strange sight.  2 lamborghinis, one white and the other blue, were racing each other through the chaotic morning streets as they aggressively swiped past elderly men on bicycles and auto rickshaws clearly carrying 3 times their capacity of passengers.  I hardly ever see lamborghinis in Los Angeles- what were they doing in New Delhi?  Rich and poor constantly collided yet co-existed in this capital city of India.

I also witnessed this stark contrast of wealth in every hotel that we visited. For a city that has no infrastructure for public sanitation and street cleaning, I was flabbergasted at the high quality of world class hotels.  Urination and defecation on public streets is not unusual in New Delhi, especially in areas close to the numerous slums scattered throughout the city, yet the majority of hotels were more impressive than any that I have been to in Tokyo or Los Angeles.  Marbled floors in the grand entrances of each hotel were so clean that the 3 second rule was more like the 3 minute rule.  Outdoor and indoor bars were fully stocked with the finest spirits from around the globe and mixologists who were prepared to shake up any cocktail of choice.  Nicola Conte’s funky beats livened up beautiful lounges with plush couches that young rich socialites would love to party at.  Impressive interior decor of historic Mughal style and modern contemporary flair decked the jaw dropping hallways of these institutions which saw no paucity of ex-pats and rich locals alike.

The Aman Resort was my favorite hotel, but a close second was the historic Imperial Hotel where I had a delicious chicken masala dosa and a tomato onion uttapam.  This colonial style hotel, lavishly decorated with expensive artwork and Italian furniture, was the kind of upscale place that could bring out the snob in any humble human being.

Another cultural contradiction struck me.  Here I was in one of the finest hotels in the world, getting first class service from the most attentive staff imaginable.  The highly efficient staff wouldn’t allow so much as a crumb to land on my lap, and the degree of hospitality was almost overwhelming.  A simple question of ‘where is the restroom’ would inevitably lead to 3 people escorting me and practically wiping my butt for me.  Yet, outside of the hotel environment, in any store or business in the real outside world, an unfathomable degree of inefficiency and lack of work ethics would prevail.

Outside on the streets of New Delhi, in any store that I would go to, I would receive a beautiful smile and a warm welcome.  They would all enthusiastically answer to my requests with a cheerful ‘Right away miss!’ or ‘In one minute’.  Yet, they would continue to talk on their cell phone or finish eating their plate of dahl for 30 minutes before I would have to remind them again, to which they would give me the same response.  I quickly learned that I cannot take things literally in India.  If one promises to have something done in 1 day, I need to clench my teeth and accept the fact that it probably means 1 week.  If somebody says ‘right away’, I should probably go home, take a shower, eat lunch and come back after a long nap, at which point there will still be a long wait.  When I would ask my sister-in-law about these things, she would only shake her head and say ‘That’s India’.

Like most modern cities with a long rich history, it was interesting to see old architecture and UNESCO sites try to co-exist in the same space with high rises and new office developments.  It wasn’t unusual to see numerous McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken stores flanked between paratha stands and samosa stalls.  I took a peek at the McDonald’s menu, and did not see anything familiar on the menu.  Maharaja chicken sandwich, Paneer salsa wrap and McAloo Tikki were so beyond the golden arches that I couldn’t even get myself to try one for kicks.

Humayun's Tomb

I was having a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that in this country with such deep religious roots, I was observing a city that was so plagued with poverty yet simultaneously infected with the desire to flaunt wealth.  India is where Siddhartha became Buddha, the Enlightened One, and where he spread the message of letting go of all humanly desires in order to be free from suffering.  I didn’t see any of his teachings being carried out in New Delhi, where any bit of wealth and social status was openly flaunted and advertised.  Rich and perfectly coiffed Bollywood stars dominated news headlines, sending young people the message that it’s better to be wealthy and beautiful.  Fair skin, green eyes and a mean six pack abdomen will get you what you need in life, not who you are or how you give back to your community.  Apparently facial bleaching creams are all the rave in India, as women desperately try to throw away their natural beauty for a more Westernized look.

Bahá'í House of Worship, The Lotus Temple

In this country where foreigners make their pilgrimage to seek a path to Nirvana by attending yoga retreats, ashrams or Ayurvedic camps, crime and cheating is rampant.  When I bought a travel guidebook for my India trip, I was surprised and appalled to see that the first 50 pages of this book were dedicated to featuring traveler’s horror stories and travel don’ts.  How people got drugged at restaurants and teahouses, only to wake up the next morning naked, bagless and passport-less.  How they would inadvertently get jipped through local travel companies and tour guides, and end up having to pay hundreds of dollars in excess.  How women would get kidnapped and raped.  How not to trust anyone, because the smiling benevolent appearing good samaritan is the one who is scamming you.  Is this really what it’s like in India?  Maybe it’s just New Delhi, I thought, and hoped that my trip to the Taj Mahal would be different.

Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world.  A sacred and beautiful mausoleum that Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife.  Behold this white jewel of India, this ethereal beauty that radiates bright light in the city of Agra.  That was what I wanted to feel, but it was really difficult with the numerous boys who hustled me every 5 meters to buy a Taj badge or a Taj calendar.  ‘Look miss, good quality. OK, for you special price, I give you for 200 rupees.’  Imagine 10 boys surrounding you in a circle, all shoving poorly constructed and frankly ugly Taj souvenirs in your face, not leaving your side until the next group surrounds you.  They are not allowed to enter the Taj grounds, so I thought that I was safe when I went through the entrance gates.  But another even more aggressive group of tour guides, claiming to give me a good price for an English tour, came chasing after me.  I couldn’t get a moment of peace in order to take in the majestic sight of this world wonder.  ‘That’s India’, I could hear my sister-in-law saying.

As I watched the sun set behind the Taj, I sighed at the thought of another adventure packed day in India coming to an end, and reflected back on my growing confusion over the different opposing dynamics at play in this culture.  I’ve visited many countries where there was such a stark disparity of social status and wealth, but not to this extent.  It seemed like the Indian caste system was very much alive and present, even in New Delhi, where the social stratification was an accepted and matter-of-fact way of life.  Was I completely naive in thinking that by the 21st century, this system would have been completely abolished?

Back in New Delhi, I had a conversation with my 10 year old niece about Indian street children.  They were present everywhere you looked, and even if you weren’t looking, they would remind you with an aggressive knock on your car window at a stop light.  Sometimes they would press a baby, wrapped in tattered dirty cloths, right up to the window to show you how desperate their situation was.  My niece told me that her teachers at school suggested donating food and candy, but not money.  The money may not necessarily go to the children, but to their leader or pimp who would use it for something else.  On several occasions my niece rolled down the car window to distribute cookies and snacks.  But every time she did so, the street children, expecting money and hard cash, gave my niece a dissatisfied and critical look.  You just can’t win…’That’s India’.

By the end of the second week, I was getting impatient with myself for seeing and judging India through a foreigner’s privileged eyes.  I wanted to go deeper into this culture and try to see a little more of the truth that lay buried under the cloak of expatriate comforts.  I became friends with a local chef, who wanted to take me to Chandni Chowk, the oldest marketplace in Old Delhi.  He told me that this was where the true essence of Indian life existed, and where I would feel the raw crudeness of the working class spirit.  I was excited to finally try some real Indian street food.

But alas, although I was extra careful with sanitary precautions and food choices, I became ill.  Yes, everybody told me that I would almost certainly get sick on my first visit, but I didn’t think that it would happen to me.  In fact, I became so sick that I had to go to the hospital.  In those dark days of relentless vomiting, and the darker moments in the local Emergency room where I watched helplessly in horror as they inserted an IV needle into my vein that seemed questionable, my spirituality and moral strength was put to test.  I really thought that I was going to die there, in the nucleus of chaos, contradictions, nonsense and paradox.  I eventually recovered, only to find out that my local chef friend was also very sick that same weekend of our planned outing. ‘That’s India’.

My last week in India was spent slumped over the toilet, and I missed my outing to Chandni Chowk and a weekend trip to Rajasthan.  2 weeks proved to be barely enough time to get my feet wet in this country, but I was still left with a strong impression.  I remembered back to what people had told me about India. That I will either love it or hate it.  So far I can honestly say that I love India, even for all of the puzzling cultural nuances and even despite my violent illness.  I had a feeling that I would be drawn to this beautiful country, and did not hesitate to get a 10 year visa.  I’m planning to go back in May for a second visit.  Hopefully my immune system will be stronger then.

….THAT’S INDIA.

Random trivia:  Legend has it that upon completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan ordered all of the sculptors and craftsmen to have their hands chopped off and their eyes gouged out.  This was so that they would never be able to see or build such a wonderful monument as the Taj Mahal.  To date, thankfully there has been no evidence to prove these myths to be true.

Bukhara- New Delhi, India

The S. Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list comes out every year, researched and comprised by numerous chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics around the globe.  It shall come as no surprise that El Bulli has consistently held 1st place in 5 previous lists, followed closely by its biggest rival, The Fat Duck.  It’s interesting to browse the annual lists of the past decade and see different culinary trends.  The biggest change that I’ve noticed is an exponential  surge of world class cuisine exploding out of Spain.  An unfortunate drop has come from The French Laundry, which used to grace the top position in 2004 but has plummeted to 12th place in 2009.  An unusual Asian competitor is Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi, which used to be #37 in 2007 and named the Best Restaurant in Asia and Best Indian Restaurant in the World, but has dropped down to #65 on the 2009 list.

During my recent trip to India, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of trying out this famous restaurant which has seen the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates.  Bukhara, named after the Silk Road province in Uzbekistan that used to be a bustling center for trade and religion, offers rustic flavors of the northwestern frontier of India.  The menu centers around traditionally prepared seafood and meat roasted in a clay tandoor oven.   Housed inside the cosmopolitan ITC Maurya hotel close to embassy row in New Delhi, this restaurant is always fully booked and thriving with international diners. It’s possibly the most famous restaurant in India, and I was excited to be able to dine there.

Unlike its ‘Best 50 Restaurants List’ rivals like Pierre Gagnaire and Tetsuya, the decor and ambiance at Bukhara is almost shockingly casual and rugged.  Diners sit on small wooden logs and have the option of wearing their signature red and white checkered Bukhara bib.  Copper pots hang on stone walls in this low-ceiling space that seems like a cave.  Here, you have to find the right timing to flag down servers in red and gold vests, who are always scurrying from table to table- they don’t necessarily come to you.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Bukhara is the large open kitchen where chefs skillfully heave long skewers of marinated meats into the blazing oven and wrestle with the famous Bukhara Naan, an enormous 3 foot naan that goes for 1350 rupees ($29 US) and can probably feed a whole village.  As if sitting inside this cave-like dining room wearing a bib and eating with your hands wasn’t primitive enough, watching these strong male chefs churn out whole chickens and lamb shanks on kebabs is enough to transform any proper lady into a chest beating ape.  This place is not for vegetarians, and it’s not for those looking for a quick light bite.  It’s hearty masculine fare that’s rough at the edges but satisfying in your belly.

There were many excellent choices on the menu such as tandoori pomfret (whole roasted flatfish) and sikandari raan (marinated leg of spring lamb), but we stuck with the classics.  We started with paneer tikka, roasted Indian cheese marinated with yellow chiles.  The huge chunks of unaged cheese, which had the appearance and texture of freshly made tofu, were delicious.  The slight charring at the edges gave it a distinct charcoal aroma that went beautifully with the light flavor of the paneer.

Seekh kabab, minced lamb kebabs hot off the metal skewers, was my favorite dish of the evening.  Lamb is my favorite red meat, and Bukhara couldn’t have done these tender animals any more justice by creating this memorable and fantastic feast.  The kebabs were intensely seasoned with ginger, green chiles, coriander, royal cumin and saffron, and each bite was dripping in fresh lamb essence.  Although the seasoning was a bit too cumin dominant, I really enjoyed the sharpness of the flavors.

Murgh tandoori, which is classic tandoori chicken,  was a whole chicken marinated in yogurt, malt vinegar, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, chili, turmeric, and garam masala.  We ordered garlic and butter naans to complement our perfectly roasted meats.  There’s something so satisfying about using your bare hands to tear meat apart and stuff it in your mouth.  It’s carnal, primal and most of all, it’s fun.

Bukhara is probably most famous for its dahl, which is so popular that it’s sold in supermarkets all over India as ‘Dal Bukhara’.  Indeed, this bowl of hearty and smoky dahl was the real deal.  Unlike others that I’ve had before, Bukhara’s version was creamy and thick with a subtle sweetness that kept me dipping my naan all night.

In case you were wondering… yes, I did put my Bukhara bib on.  Shameless, perhaps, but practical.  It was the only safe way to protect my clothes, as proper table manners went out the window in this delicious carnal feast.  It was a peaceful and satisfying moment to finish the last scrumptious morsel of tandoori chicken off the bone, lick my fingers, stretch out my limbs, shake my mane and stick my dirty fingers into the warm finger bowl.  Ahhhh….

My dinner feast at Bukhara in New Delhi was filling and satisfying.  It was some of the best Indian food that I have ever had, but I am only saying that because I haven’t had enough good Indian food to compare it with.  Although I was happy with my meal, I question whether it’s worthy of being on the 50 Best Restaurants list.  It certainly had the price tag of a Best Restaurant contender though.  Talk about emptying your wallets- the paneer tikka was 1475 rupees ($32 US) and the small bowl of dahl was 550 Rs ($12 US). It may not seem that expensive compared to $100 steaks with black truffle sauce or 80 Euro foie gras dishes, but we’re talking about New Delhi where food normally goes for a few cents.

I’m anxious to see how Bukhara does in the 2010 list, but more curious to see if they’ll finally start acknowledging more Japanese restaurants on their Top 50.  Tokyo now officially has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world, surpassing Paris in a big ego blow.  If I don’t start seeing these places on the Pellegrino list, then it will be hard for me to accept the full validity of the list.  I stand by my country!

Bukhara

ITC Maurya Sheraton & Towers Diplomatic Enclave
Sadar Patel Marg
Delhi
India 110021
Tel: 91 11 2611 2233

The Top 50 Restaurants

The S. Pellegrino world’s top 50 restaurants list for 2010 will be announced on April 26th, 2010.

Random trivia:  Did you know that cumin is the second most popular spice in the world, following black pepper in first place?  In ancient times, cumin was thought to keep lovers from straying.  Women gave their men bread baked with cumin to prevent them from wandering.

The Tapas Lounge, Aman Resort- New Delhi, India

The sights and sounds of the chaotic city of New Delhi were new and exciting for me during the first few days of my travel, but after the second week I started to slow down my pace and let everything settle into my overstimulated brain.  The polluted air filled with toxic fumes from the auto-rickshaws aggressively winding through tight spaces on the crowded streets was getting to my lungs, and the constant honking of horns was piercing right through my eardrums into my throbbing brain.  The more time I spent in New Delhi, the more I was confused about how to accept this profoundly different culture which bore no resemblance to my more structured American and Japanese upbringing.

Every day as I explored the city, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated at the immense traffic that was generated by people who drove by their own illogical rules.  I didn’t see the point in traffic lights and road signs as nobody seemed to follow them anyway.  As if the ignorance of road rules was bad enough, there were camels, mules, cows and monkeys causing mayhem in the middle of the streets during rush hour.  Nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow let alone bat an eye, as honking cars maneuvered past urinating cows and famished street children at busy intersections.  On several occasions I witnessed entire families on single tattered bicycles trudging down the highway going the opposite direction into speeding cars, oblivious to their near brush with death.  And to all of the reckless moped drivers- do you really think that your turbans take the place of safety helmets?  If people honored traffic rules and actually stopped at a red light, then the constant traffic jams would let up.  The utter inefficiency of ignoring all form of order and common sense was flabbergasting.  But….that’s India.

On another one of these typical days in New Delhi where my senses were being flooded with the absurdities of the culture, I went to seek refuge at my new found urban paradise, the Aman Resort.  I was captivated by the peaceful atmosphere of this beautiful hotel on my first visit, and my soul yearned to make its pilgrimage back there.  This time I went to the split level Tapas Lounge that boasted a wood-fired oven in the large open kitchen and was decorated lavishly yet tastefully with silver leaf ceilings and leather flooring. The ground floor is where this action is, and where diners can enjoy Spanish wines and sangrias in a sexy and seductive atmosphere.  The second floor lounge, with an unobstructed view of the reflection pool, is where diners can stretch out on plush sofas and leaf through rare Taschen books.   The third floor is more formal and traditional for those who want to get serious and enjoy the resident Spanish chef’s wonderful tasting menus.

Spanish chef Jonay Armas runs the kitchen at the Tapas Lounge.  Young and handsome Armas has worked alongside famed Michelin starred Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, among other reputable chefs like Paco Roncero.  He did a lovely tasting menu lunch for us in the relaxing second floor lounge.  The vegetarian portion of the tapas menu featured classic dishes like patatas bravas, ensaladilla rusa and tortilla Española, and a Papas Canarias with Mojo to reflect his Canary Island heritage.  Non vegetarian items included garlic prawns, lamb skewers and cured anchovies.   All, except for a plate of jamon iberico, were under 350 Rupees ($7 US).

The toasted almonds and house cured olives were amazing.  The olives were meaty and succulent, bursting with aromatic juice and savor.  We started our fantastic meal with one of the best gazpachos that I have ever had.  Slivers of fresh garlic, forest green basil oil and a twist of finely ground black pepper added the perfect amount of zest to this silky Andalucian tomato soup.  The amalgam of vegetable essences was rich and dense, and the intense flavors in each spoonful coated my sensory receptors with a magical fruity veil.

I was in meat lover’s paradise with the grilled chorizo dish.  Of course, the chorizo was imported from Spain, as the predominantly Hindu and Muslim populations of India do not eat pork.  It’s very difficult for me to survive more than 2 days without pork products, so this grilled plate, saturated with the finest pork essence and drippings ever imaginable, was a heaven sent gift.  Each slice had that perfect crunchy sear that is necessary to concentrate the meat flavors.

Tender cubes of crispy potatoes on a bed of spicy red tomato sauce were generously layered with creamy aioli in the patatas bravas dish.  Each cube had a pleasantly crisp exterior with the perfect amount of oiliness to complement the rich aioli.

Crispy calamari was indeed extra crispy with a wonderful light texture.  These deep fried rings of seafood delight, with a squeeze of sour lemon and a light dip into the aioli, were delightful.  Once you start, you can’t stop…

We enjoyed our delicious meal with a refreshing glass of their Sangrina, a virgin sangria with diced apples.

Chef Armas brought up this plate of assorted croquettes with fresh green salad.  Mushroom, chicken and jamon croquettes were warm and toasty.  As I bit through the perfectly fried crunchy shell, the creamy rich filling melted in my mouth and gently massaged my tongue into a catatonic bliss.

We finished our fantastic meal with crema catalana, the Spanish version of crème brûlée.  As I struck the top layer with my spoon, the solid burnt caramel shattered into large pieces and gave way to the sweet pool of cream underneath.  I watched the silver spoon slowly sink into the thick ooze of vanilla sap before I pounced on it with my ravenous appetite.

The luxurious and serene Aman Resort, one of my favorite resorts in the whole world, allowed me to escape from the noisy and turbulent streets of New Delhi.  With Chef Armas’ magical touch, my dining experience at the Tapas Lounge took me further along in my retreat away from reality to the lush green countrysides of Spain.  These delectable dishes were some of the best tapas that I have ever had, and it rivaled some of my most memorable plates that I had in Barcelona.  We concluded our Aman experience with a fascinating tour through the wine cellars and cigar humidors.

My body is back in the US, but my heart and spirit still remain attached to the tranquil grounds of the Aman Resort…

The Aman Resort, New Delhi

Lodhi Road, New Delhi 110003
India

tel (91) 11 4363 3333

Random trivia: Did you know that gazpacho, the most famous Andalucian dish of chilled vegetable soup, was originally considered poor man’s food?  It was made with bread, water and olive oil, all pounded in a wooden bowl called a dornillo.  Later versions were made with bread, water, anchovy bones, salt and olive oil.  It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 1400′s that tomatoes were added to gazpacho.