Finding My Inner Foodie In Sicily

Meg Nesterov

I really hate the F-word. I think it’s overused, lazy and borderline offensive. I’m talking about the word “foodie,” a concept we have rallied against here before, yet the movement seems to stay strong and keep evolving with the advent of the latest bacon Frankenstein dish or artisanal ketchup. I do love food, and sometimes a meal (or more often for me, a really good peach) can be transformative. My singular “fancy” New York dinner in over a dozen years in the city was a worthy splurge at Momofuku Ko, made all the more enjoyable as we dined in jeans, listening to the Violent Femmes. In my career in travel PR, I have had the luck to dine in some of the world’s best restaurants, multiple times, for free. While I loved trying pine needle risotto and lobster spring rolls, I hated the feeling of being fattened up for the slaughter, of having to pace myself through 15 courses, of feeling like a competitor in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and being expected to pay a day’s salary for the privilege.

While I can appreciate a lovingly prepared, picked-in-its-prime, artfully presented dish, sometimes I think food is just a means to an end, quick fuel to keep you going. I’ve eaten many a “dirty water” New York hot dog without giving it a thought, had microwave popcorn for dinner, and subsisted on beers and ham-and-cheese toasties on the road. I’m one of those people who “forgets” to eat, and especially now that I have a toddler at heel all the time, I often wish I could just take a pill to replace the tasks of cooking, eating, and cleaning up after. Preparing a multi-course meal on the scale of the average Japanese or Italian home cook is just not in my wheelhouse. Or could it be?

We recently took a two-week trip to Sicily, the last “big” trip we’ll take before my baby turns 2 next month and we have to start paying for her tickets. The highlight of the trip was a week spent in a rented farmhouse outside the town of Noto in the southeast. Set amidst lemon trees and a small river to wade in, the interior was especially the stuff of “Under the Tuscan Sun”-style fantasies: three bedrooms with beamed ceilings and iron beds, a cozy living room loaded with an international assortment of books and board games around a Moroccan-style fireplace, a bathroom with soaking tub (a rarity in Italy, where claustrophobic showers that flood the bathroom are the norm), and the pièce de résistance: a huge kitchen with a long dining table, large center island, and lots of light and space. The sort of kitchen you might imagine yourself in, barefoot in a fabulous sun dress, cold glass of wine in hand, chopping herbs just picked from the garden, while your beaming child munches on organic fruit and your relaxed husband takes a break from staring out into the valley to light the coals for your 5 euro steak filets. That pretty much sums up my week.

Cooking each night with the resources of Italian supermarkets, food specialty shops and green markets broadened my palate as well as my waistline. When artisanal, organic and locally made foods are the norm and not the exception, being a foodie becomes more human, less pretentious. I put my college minor in Italian to the test when going to the butcher, the baker and the gelato maker. In Sicily, it is socially acceptable to eat gelato for breakfast (sometimes on a slightly sweet brioche roll), but as the weather was starting to heat up and even the small town gelaterias had a wide range of flavors to sample, I thought it fair to eat twice a day. The highlights were milk & honey in Noto and a peach bourbon in Modica; there were no low points in the ice cream sampling. Adopting the local customs, we planned for a primo, a salad, and a main course each night. Sometimes we’d be too stuffed from a bruschetta-like salad and frozen pizza enlivened with spicy sausage, basil from our garden and roasted cherry tomatoes; we would have to forgo the herb-and-parmesan rubbed pork chops we grilled until the next night.

Did I mention I’m also not a tomato person? While I like a marinara sauce as much as the next gal, I never could handle the texture of a raw tomato: seedy, watery, anemic. A sun-dried tomato held some appeal, but I’d still eat dishes like bruschetta like a culinary Russian roulette: one bite delicious melted cheese, the next would be all slimy seeds and rough skin. Living in Turkey with amazing produce had warmed me to the idea of a raw tomato, but after nearly a year back in the U.S., I was back on strike. In Sicily, staying close to the town of Pachino, a tomato Mecca, I ate them like potato chips, even adding them to already tomato-heavy pasta dishes and pizzas. Who knew the wee cherry tomato could be so bursting with flavor, so devoid of seedy ickiness, so much like a fruit?

We’ve now been home in Brooklyn over a week and life is slowly returning to normal. The jet lag has abated enough that I can stay up later than 9 p.m. again, and the scale is less angry at me than when we first returned. I’ve been experimenting with how to use the pistachio pesto (add lots of garlic for pasta, spread extra on sandwiches) and pistachio cream (dip berries, or as the Internet wisely suggests, spoon directly into mouth) purchased in the markets, and am hoarding the sun-dried Pachino tomatoes for after summer. I’ve made bruschetta a few times, though the cost of decent tomatoes and fresh mozzarella in Brooklyn would make most Italians choke on their crostini. At least at home I could rediscover what’s great about not being in Italy: non-Italian food. Avocados returned to my salads, Chinese moo shoo pancakes were now available, and salmon roe was just a quick subway ride to Brighton Beach away. While I miss the twice-daily gelato fixes, Sicily taught me that enjoying food doesn’t have to be pretentious or expensive, and you can always follow your stomach to what’s most freshly available in your area, whether that’s spaghetti with fresh tuna and red pesto sauce or a perfectly done burger and fries. And sometimes, microwave popcorn makes a fine second course.

Photo Of The Day: Sri Lanka Temple

Photo of the Day Sri Lanka temple
Jaliyaj, Flickr

I’ve been traveling vicariously this week through my aunt who is temporarily based in Singapore and exploring Sri Lanka right now. The south Asian country has been on my wish list for years, ever since I learned the capital from playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and imagined it was a place where my bartender might be an international jewel thief with an eye patch. On the less sinister side, part of Sri Lanka’s appeal is gorgeous beaches and interesting temples. Today’s Photo of the Day has both, spying a Buddhist temple on an island off the beach. It looks like a peaceful and inspiring place to pray, hopefully they aren’t harboring any jewel thieves.

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Video: Spinning Gold In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar


Earlier this year in Istanbul, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a man who spins gold thread at the Grand Bazaar. His noisy workshop is tucked into a courtyard off one of the bazaar’s main “streets,” past a few jewelry kiosks and before a reasonably clean but squat-style toilet. Huge fan belts crisscross the room and antique machines creak and spin spools of thread in metallic and bright colors; the spinner (a former footballer, I later learned) works the room like a conductor. Seeing me and my baby peeking in, he ushered us in to have a closer look and took our photo looking around in awe. I had no need for thread (gold or otherwise) and had a slight fear one of us could lose an eye if we hung around the Ottoman-esque machines too long, but it was a treat to find. Dim light made for poor photos, so I was thrilled to find this video of the machine in action on guidebook extraordinaire Rick Steves’ Facebook page.

After living in Istanbul for more than two years as an expat, it took me a while to appreciate the Grand Bazaar as more than a horrible tourist trap. The key to finding the magic in the Grand Bazaar is discovering the nooks and crannies most visitors miss in their hunt for “authentic” souvenirs (likely made in China) and inexpensive fez hats (forget about the irony that the fez was banned here as a means of modernizing and secularizing the country when it became a republic). If you look hard, you’ll still find real artisans, centuries-old family businesses and relics from former empires. If you want to find this guy, leave me a comment and I’ll try to leave a bread trail to him.

The Kimchi-ite: Life As A Foreigner In Asia

As a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white American living in Asia, I tend to stand out in a crowd. It’s an interesting and bizarre thing that has become a part of my everyday life. Even living in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world, where more and more people of different ethnicities come every year, children on the subway stare at me unabashedly, store employees sometimes get visibly nervous when I come to pay at the counter and my students frequently ask me why I have gold hair.

When I was living in the smaller Fuji City, Japan, my presence as a foreigner was much more pronounced. While waiting at a crosswalk one day, a high school girl beside me turned and jumped, screeching “ah! Gaijin da!” “Ah! A foreigner!” I remember once at a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan, a middle-aged Japanese woman was asking the staff for directions to a certain temple when I popped into the conversation and told her, in Japanese, what train station it is near. The woman gave me a confused look, then asked the receptionist, “did he just speak Japanese?” To which I responded, “Yes, that’s right.” Again, to the receptionist, she replied “Wow, that’s interesting.”

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.No matter which Asian country you live in, there seems to be a certain subset of questions and comments that the foreign community constantly received. People will ask if you are capable of using chopsticks. Any use of the local language will yield extremely flattering praise, regardless if you simply said “hello” or if you gave an in depth appraisal of surgical medical equipment. Sometimes, white Westerners may get a little bit of superstar treatment, people coming up to them at bars, buying them drinks and saying that how much the Westerner looks like a movie star with a “small face” (the above photo is the result of a night like that).

But, the good comes with the bad. Once a friend of mine here in Seoul tried to set me up on a blind date with his female friends, and more than a couple turned me down simply because of the fact that I am a foreigner, saying that I am simply passing through Korea and not looking for something serious. Also, a foreigner can live in an Asian country for the majority of their life, get married, have kids, obtain citizenship, but to the public at large, they will always be seen as an outsider first. This comes with the territory. It’s important to know that people are often not intentionally being rude or discriminatory; they are just unfamiliar with foreigners. This possibly being one of the few times they have ever had to interact with one, having grown up in a homogenous society where 99% of people are of the same ethnic or racial background.

Growing up, I remember more than a few times when my teachers told the class, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world were everyone was the same race, with the same hair, skin and eye color, would you?” The truth is, not everywhere is a soup of diversity, even within the United States. The world is certainly heading in a much more connected, multi-cultural direction and it’s exciting to be bridging that gap between east and west.

[Photos by Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]