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]

In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Get Anything Hand-Delivered By Travelers From Anywhere

hand-delivered stuff from mmMuleIn my two years as an expat in Istanbul, I’ve asked visiting friends to bring me everything from bacon to Ziploc bags and iPads, and in return, I visit home with boxes of Turkish delight, baklava and coffee. But for those long winter months when I don’t know anyone visiting Turkey, how am I supposed to get my chocolate-and-peanut-butter fix? Now there’s a social network that connects locals and travelers who can bring you anything hand-delivered from anywhere in the world. mmMule aims to get hard-to-find or foreign items to locals everywhere, and rewards travelers with a local experience for delivering it.

Let’s say you are visiting Paris. You can log on to mmMule and find locals who want stuff ranging from Big Red gum to South African biltong cured meat. Maybe you want another jar of that Dijon mustard you loved on your last trip to France or some good old American mac & cheese if you’re abroad (seriously, all expats miss mac & cheese, and yes, we know we can make it ourselves). You can post a request on mmMule and wait to be connected with a traveler who can bring it. In exchange for the delivery, the “mule” is repaid for the cost of the item and rewarded in some way, from drinks at a local bar to an overnight stay in the local’s home. Illegal, embargoed and other illicit stuff is strictly verboten, so don’t think you can get someone to re-enact “Midnight Express.”

Should you feel inspired to help someone in need of more than supermarket goodies, you can check out the listings for AngelMule and bring supplies to non-profits. Your donations can be rewarded with cultural experiences like stays with local families or just an offer of “a big hug and eternal gratitude.” They’d probably be even more grateful if you threw some peanut butter cups into the deal.

Get whatever you want at mmMule.com or volunteer to bring stuff to someone else.

Expat fusion cuisine: combining foreign foods with favorites from home

expat fusionPart of the fun of traveling is trying new and exotic foods. Many travelers try to eat only locally and eschew the familiar, though eating at American chain restaurants abroad can be its own experience. But when you make a foreign country your home, you have to adapt your tastes and cooking to what’s available locally while craving your favorites from home. I’m lucky enough to live in Istanbul with an amazing food culture heavy on roasted meats and grilled fish, fragrant spices, and fresh produce. Some foreign foods like pizza and sushi have been embraced in Istanbul, but Turkish food has remained largely uncompromised by outside influences and passing trends. Convenience foods are still a new concept in Turkey but you can always grab a quick doner kebab or fish sandwich on the street if you aren’t up to cooking.
In my own kitchen, I’m learning to work with Turkish ingredients and dishes and mix in some favorites from home, creating some “expat fusion” cuisine. Meat-filled manti ravioli gets an extra zing with some Louisiana hot sauce. In the hottest days of my pregnancy this summer, I craved pudding pops from my childhood, making them more adult with some tangy Turkish yogurt. One ingredient I miss here is maple syrup, which is generally only produced in North America, and hard to find and expensive in the rest of the world (a small bottle in Turkey costs about $20!). One of my American friends brought me a bottle this summer and I poured it over pancakes (surprisingly easy to make from scratch when you can’t get a mix) and my favorite Turkish treat, kaymak. Kaymak is a clotted cream popular on the breakfast table, served with a crusty loaf of bread and honey, available in most local supermarkets but best eaten fresh in a cafe like Pando’s Kaymakci in Istanbul’s Besiktas neighborhood. I draw a lot of inspiration from my friend and fellow expat Joy, who was a professional pastry chef back in Baltimore and now chronicles her mouth-watering cooking in her Istanbul kitchen on her blog, My Turkish Joys. She posts beautiful food photos and recipes with both American and European measurements to help US and Turkish readers recreate her dishes such as sour cherry pie. Afiyet Olsun (that’s Turkish for bon appetit)!

Gadling readers, have you created any expat fusion foods with ingredients from your travels? Make us hungry and leave us a comment below!

Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]