How To Eat Bolivian Street Food (Without Shame)

street foodThere’s a certain breed of traveler who will, often to their detriment, go to extreme lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. I know, because I’m one of them. Whatever spawned this phobia is anyone’s guess, but I really, really, really dislike standing out in a crowd, especially if that crowd is foreign, and I’m eating.

While I also sneak looks at maps and guidebooks on the DL when I’m lost, the thing that really troubles me is being clueless about local or national etiquette while dining, especially when it comes to street food (my raison d’être). I always research beforehand – learning, for example, that in Thailand the spoon is the primary eating utensil; it’s abhorrent to insert a fork into your mouth and chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes and primarily in the North. But it’s sometimes impossible to know local custom until you’re actually in the moment (above, Bolivian lustrabotas, or shoe shine men, eat on the street)

I’m pretty sure it was a long-ago trip to Vietnam that scarred me. I’d been in the country all of a couple of hours, and was eating my first meal. I was sitting at a miniscule table on the sidewalk in coastal Nha Trang, happily wolfing down báhn cuon. That is, until the young Vietnamese guy next to me, who unfortunately spoke some English, informed me that I was eating it the wrong way, and making something of an ass of myself (yet providing entertainment for our less vocal tablemates). I was mortified, and sure enough, I noticed the snickers and giggles due to how the silly round-eye was eating her rice noodle roll. To be honest, I can’t even remember how to eat bánh cuon, but at the time, it was clearly emotionally challenging.saltenaWhile I appreciated the advice, I didn’t particularly feel it was given so much to be helpful as it was to make me feel stupid. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it. But ever since, my policy regarding street food in vastly different cultures has been to adopt a watch-and-wait policy.

When I arrived in Bolivia two weeks ago, I leapt of out bed my first morning to head to the Mercado Lanza to try some salteñas and tucumanas– two Bolivian street specialties that are variations on the ubiquitous empanada. Empanadas are my Kryptonite, so I was ready to do some damage. Best of all, there’s no learning curve. Insert in mouth; enjoy. I naively assumed their Bolivian cousins are just as easy to gobble.

Salteñas (right) are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons. They’re usually filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. I knew this, but grossly underestimated just how much they’re the Shanghai soup dumplings of pastry. The proper way to eat them is not to simply purchase and take a huge bite (note to self), because that will result in a.) scalding, meaty juice exploding in your mouth and singing its way down your esophagus, and b.) greasy, aromatic, meaty juice squirting all over your clothes (like, say, your really expensive microlight down jacket that you use for backpacking). You’ll also attract the attention of passerby, who will smirk at the idiot gringa who just had a salteña explode in her face.

I later learned, from a menu photo at a salteñeria, that one is supposed to eat them with a spoon. I’m not sure how that applies to the street, but let’s just say my second go was much more successful, and less humiliating. That said, I’m not a big salteña fan, as it turns out.
Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, except they’re always fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato, and my first taste occurred about 15 minutes after my unfortunate salteña encounter.
street food
Determined not to be the same fool twice, I watched a crazy-busy street vendor (right) frying and serving tucumanas at warp speed. My street food credo is to only purchase from stalls or carts that are doing a rapid business, to ensure a fresh product (plus, it’s a sign that the food is good, if not great). I observed the various patrons eating their tucumanas, and when I felt ready, I ordered one.

It was rapturous – light as air, yet fragrant and savory. I stood hovering next to the cart, squirting a bit of mayonnaise-based salsa into the tucumana after each bite. I hunched, so as not to dribble any bits of filling. I shared the salsa squeeze bottle. I wiped my mouth with the square of paper it had been wrapped in. Then I ordered another. You know you’ve achieved street food nirvana when the vendor doesn’t demand money until you’ve eaten your fill. Bless you, Bolivia.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Hangover Cures: A Global Primer

elephantNew Year’s Eve is fast approaching, so what better time to provide a list of hangover cures from around the world? Our friends at Alice Marshall Public Relations in New York asked some of their clients about local versions of hair-of-the-dog. Unsurprisingly, the preferred remedies all have a distinctly regional flavor. Here’s to a headache-and-nausea-free January 1!

St. Barts
On this notorious party island, the secret is to stay awake. Pull an all-nighter, and when “the bakery” in St. Jean opens, score a croissant straight out of the oven. Devour it, cross the street and jump into the ocean.

Thailand
Although I’ve found coconut water to be the best hangover helper in existence, Thailand has a more original cure. According to the Anantara Golden Triangle resort, Black Ivory Coffee (aka elephant dung coffee, which I believe puts kopi luwak to shame) is what does the trick. Elephants feed on coffee beans, which then ferment in their gastrointestinal tract.

The beans are then plucked out by the mahouts (elephant keepers) and their wives, roasted, and sold for approximately $1,100 per kilogram. But wait, there’s more! Eight percent of all sales are donated to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. No reason is given for why this cure supposedly helps, but I’m thinking this folklore is full of … you know.
coconut waterMaldives
As if being in the glorious Maldives weren’t cure enough, Naladhu luxury resort has my kind of cure in mind (that’s me, right, killing a hangover in Mexico). They provide queasy guests with fresh coconut water from their own groves. All those electrolytes along with potassium stop hangovers in their tracks.

Cape Town
According to chef Reuben Riffel of One&Only Cape Town, a swank urban resort, you need to drink yourself better. His solution is an alcohol-free tonic consisting of one cup of chilled Rooibos tea (an indigenous plant), a half-cup ginger ale, and 1 ounce of lemongrass simple syrup. Top with soda water, and a dash of Angostura bitters.

Santa Fe
After many visits to Santa Fe, I’ll swear by the local’s cure for a long night. A green chile cheeseburger is the prescription, although I’d add that a bowl of great posole, green chile, or a breakfast burrito also work wonders.

Nantucket
Nantucket Island Resorts recommends a brisk swim in Nantucket Sound, followed by a visit to Brant Point Grill for a Lobster Bloody Mary and lobster kabobs. Now we’re talking.

Have a safe, happy, hangover-free New Year’s!

[Photo credits: elephant, Flickr user rubund; coconut, Laurel Miller]

Intrigued by Black Ivory Coffee? Watch this video!


Learn A Culinary History Of Thanksgiving In America

culinary history of ThanksgivingEver wonder how pumpkin pie and roast turkey came to be synonymous with Thanksgiving? You may want to get yourself to Brooklyn restaurant The Farm on Adderley on November 13, when food blogger and “historic gastronomist” Sarah Lohman hosts an evening of “American Cookery” with a culinary history of Thanksgiving. Taste and learn about all of the holiday favorites, from mashed potatoes to green bean casserole, the origins of each recipe, and the traditions associated with each dish. Lohman is also an educator with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and a curator with many New York-area institutions, and regularly leads talks and walks around the five boroughs with an emphasis on culinary history. She’s previously teamed up with The Farm for events like a pre-industrial dinner.

Visit TheFarmonAdderley.com to learn details on the event.

[Photo credit: Flickr user riptheskull]

Think Globally, Eat Locally At Culinary Backstreets

culinary backstreets - Istanbul fish restaurantBudget-savvy and food-loving visitors to Istanbul have found an excellent resource in Istanbul Eats for several years, and now can find more authentic and off-the-beaten-path tips in Athens, Barcelona, and Shanghai, with Mexico City on the way. Culinary Backstreets was launched this week as an extension of IstanbulEats.com, a blog reviewing Turkey’s best street food, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and unique dishes. Founded in 2009 by two American expats, Istanbul Eats launched a book in 2010 (now in its third edition, and available at nearly every bookshop in Istanbul and online, in English, Turkish, Greek, and even Korean!) as well as culinary tours through the Old City, Beyoglu, and even cross-continent. Istanbul Eats has garnished a devoted fan base who’ve been wishing for “an Istanbul Eats-like guide to restaurants in every city,” hence the creation of Culinary Backstreets.

Culinary Backstreets is a site for travelers who eschew tourist menus, ask cab drivers where to dine, and frequently find themselves the only foreigner in a cafe. Each city will be covered by local food writers who regularly comb the streets in search of the tastiest tidbits. So far, each city has posted a “State of the Stomach” guide, outlining the current food scene, the eats locals line up for, and practical tips for following your stomach to the traditional and the trendy restaurants. Culinary walks are currently being offered in Istanbul and Shanghai, with more cities coming soon.

Get hungry at CulinaryBackstreets.com.

[Photo courtesy of Yigal Schleifer]

Get Ready For The Olympics With Andaz’s World Food Marathon

andaz liverpool streetWhile the Olympic Games are associated with international sports, Andaz Liverpool Street in London will be focusing on international food during the weeks leading up to the big event.

The five-star luxury hotel will be looking to staff members of its four Andaz restaurants – 1901, Catch, Eastway and Miyako – to help create the menu. Pulling from the 40 different nationalities that represent the Andaz Liverpool Street team, 26 unique cultural dishes were created. This number isn’t random, as it embodies the 26 miles in a marathon. The tasty festival will run from July 2 to July 27, the 26 days leading up to the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Some of the dishes attendees can expect include Korean Spicy Pork, Polish Golabki, Slovakian sheep’s cheese dumplings, Colombian bandeja paisa and South African Bobotie.

“With all eyes on London this year as the 2012 Olympic season gathers momentum, Andaz Liverpool Street wanted to pay tribute to the multicultural base of the city with a variety of dishes from around the world, which celebrate different cultures, allowing our guests to take a journey of the culinary kind through what we have called the World Food Marathon,” says Arnaud de Saint Exupéry, the Andaz Liverpool Street General Manager.