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]

Great ‘Cultural’ Spa Experiences From Around The World

spasEven if you’re not a spa junkie, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a great massage or other self-indulgent treatment. I’m actually a massage school graduate, and although I ultimately decided not to pursue that career path, I’ve parlayed my experience into doing the odd spa writing assignment. Not surprisingly, I’m a tough judge when it comes to practitioners, facilities and treatments. I also don’t have any interest in generic treatments. What I love is a spa and menu that captures the essence of a place, through both ingredients and technique.

Many spas around the world now try to incorporate some localized or cultural element into their spa programs. It’s not just a smart marketing tool, but a way to educate clients and hotel guests, employ local people skilled in indigenous therapeutic practices, or sell branded spa products made from ingredients grown on site, or cultivated or foraged by local tribes or farmers.

Sometimes, it’s not a hotel or high-end day spa that’s memorable, but a traditional bathhouse used by locals (such as a Moroccan hammam) that’s special. The low cost of such places is an added bonus: think Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and parts of the Middle East.

Over the years, I’ve visited a number of spas and bathhouses that have made a big impression on my aching body or abused skin, as well as my innate traveler’s curiosity. After the jump, my favorite spa experiences from around the world.

ninh van baySix Senses Ninh Van Bay: Vietnam
Located on an isolated peninsula accessible only by boat, Six Senses (near the beach resort of Nha Trang) is a seriously sexy property. Private villas nestle in the hillsides and perch above the water, but the spa and restaurants are the big draw here, as many of their ingredients are sourced from the property’s extensive organic gardens.

The “Locally Inspired” section of the spa menu features treatments like the Vietnamese Well-being Journey: three-and-a-half hours of pure hedonism. A scrub with com xanh (Vietnamese green rice) is followed by a bath in “herbs and oils from the indigenous Hmong and Dao hill tribes of the Sa Pa Valley,” and a traditional massage using bamboo, suction cups and warm poultices filled with native herbs.

On my visit, I opted for a refreshing “Vietnamese Fruit Body Smoother” made with ingredients just harvested from the garden: papaya, pineapple and aloe vera. Other body treatments include applications of Vietnamese green coffee concentrate and a green tea scrub.

Foot reflexology: Hong Kong
Foot reflexologists and massage parlors are ubiquitous throughout Asia, and in my experience, it’s hard to find a bad one. That said, one of the best massages I’ve ever had was an hour-long foot reflexology session in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong. It cost me all of ten dollars, and interestingly enough, it also proved eerily accurate about a long-term GI problem I’d been having that had defied Western diagnosis.

My bliss was momentarily interrupted when my therapist pressed a particular spot on the ball of my foot, causing me to nearly leap out of my skin. He informed me that my gallbladder was inflamed, information I processed but soon forgot. I’d already been tested for gallstones with negative results – twice. A year later, I had an emergency cholecsytectomy to remove my severely diseased gallbladder. A trip to Honinh van bayng Kong for a foot massage would ultimately have been cheaper and far more enjoyable than three years of worthless diagnostics.

Verana: Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico
One of my favorite places on earth is Verana, an intimate, eight-guesthouse hilltop retreat located in Yelapa, a fishing village one hour from Puerto Vallarta by water taxi. Husband and wife team Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre designed the hotel and spa and built it entirely by hand, using local, natural materials.

Although the spa doesn’t focus on traditional Mayan or Aztec technique, Verana grows or forages all of the raw ingredients for its treatments (the gardens also supply the property’s outstanding restaurant), including banana, coconut, lemon, pineapple, papaya and herbs. Try an outdoor massage, followed by a dip in the watsu tub, or an edible-sounding body scrub made with cane sugar and coffee or hibiscus-papaya.

Morocco: hammams
A staple of Moroccan life (as well as other parts of North Africa and the Middle East), hammam refers to segregated public bathhouses that are a weekly ritual for many. A “soap” made from crushed whole olives and natural clay is applied all over the body with an exfoliating mitt. Buckets of hot water are then used to rinse.

Although many hotels in the big cities offer luxury hammam treatments tailored for Western guests, if you want the real deal, go for a public bathhouse. While in Morocco, I got to experience three types of hammam: the hotel variety, a rural DIY hammam at the spectacular yelapaKasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains, and one at a public bathhouse.

In most public hammams, you’ll strip down in a massive, steam-filled, tiled room. Request an attendant (rather than DIY), who will then scrub the life out of you, flipping you around like a rag-doll. Massages are often offered as part of the service or for an additional fee.

Yes, it’s intimidating and unnerving to be the only naked Westerner in a giant room of naked Muslim men or women, all of who are staring at you and giggling. Once you get over being the odd man (or woman, in my case) out, it’s fascinating to have such an, uh, intimate glimpse into an everyday activity very few travelers experience. The payoff is the softest, cleanest, most glowing skin imaginable.

At hammans that accept Westerners, the vibe is friendly and welcoming, and it’s a way to mingle with locals and participate in an ancient, sacred ritual without causing offense. Do enquire, via sign language or in French, if you should remove all of your clothing, or leave your skivvies on. I failed to do this at the public bathhouse, and increased the staring situation a thousand-fold, because at that particular hammam (unlike the Kasbah), the women kept their underwear on. Oops.

Three highly recommended, traditional, wood-fired Marrakech hammams are Bain Marjorelle (large, modern multi-roomed), Hammam Polo (small, basic, one room), and Hammam el Basha (large, older, multi-roomed). Expect to pay approximately $10 for an attendant (including tip, sometimes massage). Independent travelers can easily find a hamman if they look for people of their own gender carrying buckets, towels and rolled-up mats near a mosque. To ensure you visit a Western-friendly hammam, it’s best to ask hotel or riad staff or taxi drivers for recommendations, and enquire about male/female hours.

Daintree EcoLodge & Spa: Daintree, Queensland, Australia
The Daintree Rainforest, located near Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, is over 135 million years old. It’s home to some of the rarest and most primitive flora on earth, muchalto atacama of it traditionally used by the local Aboriginal people for medicinal purposes.

The Daintree Wellness Spa at the low-key, family-owned and-operated EcoLodge has received international accolades for both its work with the local Kuku Yajani people, and its luxe treatments. The spa relies on ochre (a skin purifier) harvested from beneath the property’s waterfall, as well as indigenous “bush” ingredients from the Daintree such as rosella, avocado, native mint, wild ginger, bush honey, quandong, tea tree and spring water. The spa also produces its own line of products, Daintree Essentials (available online).

All treatments integrate traditional Kuku Yalanji modalities and spiritual beliefs, and have received approval from the local elders. I opted for the Ngujajura (Dreamtime) package, which includes a full body and foot massage, Walu BalBal facial and rain therapy treatment (a specialty at Daintree, consisting of an oil and sea salt exfoliation, ochre mud wrap and spring water shower administered tableside … trust me, it’s revelatory). An added bonus: the lodge offers Aboriginal cultural classes that include jungle walks, medicinal plants and bush foods (try eating green ants, a surprisingly tasty source of vitamin C).

Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
This absolutely enchanting adobe property on the outskirts of the village of San Pedro is a slice of heaven, even if you skip its Puri Spa. But that would be a mistake, because then you wouldn’t be able to succumb to treatments and ingredients adapted from what’s been traditionally used by the local Atacameño people for thousands of years.

Atacama is the driest desert on earth, so on my visit, I chose the “Royal Quinoa Face Mask,” made with locally sourced quinoa (for its exfoliating and regenerative properties) mixed with local honey and yogurt. I left the treatment room looking considerably less desiccated.

The real splurge is the Sabay Massage, which uses pindas, or cloth pouches, filled with rice (used here as an exfoliant), rica rica (an herbal digestive aid also used in aromatherapy) and chañar berries (medicinally used as an expectorant and to stimulate circulation, as well as a food source) collected from around the property, which has extensive native gardens designed by a reknown Chilean ethno-botanist. You’ll emerge silky-skinned and tension-free. Dulces Sueños.

[Photo credits: Massage, Flickr user thomaswanhoff; Six Senses, Laurel Miller; Verana, Flickr user dmealiffe]

Vietnamese street food tastes better by motorbike

There are few things I enjoy more than perching on a plastic, Playskool-size stool on a steaming sidewalk, surrounded by clouds of carbon monoxide. Why do I so enjoy impersonating a contortionist and inhaling carcinogens? Because it means I’m somewhere in Southeast Asia, eating street food.

On my first visit to Vietnam, I flew up to Nha Trang, on the South Central Coast. I found a cheap hotel several blocks off the beach, and set about giving myself a crash course in Vietnamese street food. I was familiar with staples such as pho and banh mi (baguette sandwiches with pork pate and a variety of condiments). Yet I was soon overwhelmed by the array of comestibles being hawked from carts and storefronts, despite frequent thumbing through my Vietnamese food guide.

Compounding the issue was the lack of recognizability of many of the ingredients. No one could ever accuse me of being squeamish, but I like to know what I’m eating, if only for curiosity’s sake. The mysterious, meaty hunks stewing in battered, aluminum stockpots, and hanging behind Plexi-glass shields gave no indication as to their origin. Clearly, I needed someone to help me achieve Vietnamese street food cred.

%Gallery-100653%I had already planned to visit the Evason Ana Mandara & Six Senses Spa later in the week, because they had a well-regarded “street market dinner.” Since 2003, a gaggle of local women–all food vendors known for their version of a specific dish–prepare their respective specialties at one of the property’s three restaurants. It’s a fun way to educate less-adventurous guests about traditional Vietnamese cuisine. The bi-weekly dinners provide steady income for the women and their families, which is critical during inclement weather.

The privately-owned Evason-Soneva luxury property group has a core philosophy of green building design and operations, and emphasizes the hiring of local people in order to support the economy. They also make donations of revenue proceeds to community social projects, including education and health care for children.

Much of the produce and botanicals used in the restaurants and spa treatments are from the sustainable gardens at nearby (stunning) sister property, Six Senses Hideaway at Ninh Van Bay. Ana Mandara also offers market tours and cooking classes as a way to introduce guests to regional Vietnamese cuisine and ingredients.

When I finally checked in to Ana Mandara, I asked if they offered personalized food tours through one of the local guides they contract. And that’s how I found myself on the back of a motorbike at sunset, whizzing through the back streets on my very own tasting tour of Nha Trang.

My 29-year old guide, Nguyen Quoc Nam, was born and raised in Nha Trang. He took me to some of the city’s best spots for eating regional dishes–most of them popular street foods. Our first stop was the poetically-named, sidewalk eatery Phúc, which specializes in banh canh, a fish and rice vermicelli soup. The rickety sidewalk tables were crowded with patrons enthusiastically slurping soup and fried mackerel head–the other specialty of the house.

Like most Vietnamese, Nam is obsessed with food. Throughout our three-hour feeding frenzy, he gave me the history, preparation method, and eating technique for every dish we sampled. We ate banh beo, “leaves” of rice noodles topped with succulent grilled pork, herbs, and chile; sinh to, fresh fruit and yogurt shakes; banh xeo, lacy rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric crepes stuffed with grilled squid, shrimp, quail egg, and bean sprouts, and chao tom, grilled, seasoned, ground shrimp on sugar cane skewers.

At lively Quan 52, the sidewalk tables were wreathed in aromatic smoke from an adjacent grill. We were served a plate of still-sizzling strips of pork, which we used to make nem, a kind of DIY spring roll. We soaked crisp rice paper sheets in water, then layered them with the meat, nuoc nam, julienned cucumber and green banana, pickled shallots, rau hung (spearmint), diếp cá (fish mint), and ngo gai (saw leaf herb). I was utterly hopeless at constructing the tidy little packages made by fellow diners; even Nam seemed amazed by my lack of fine motor skills. Fortunately, my appetite compensates in these situations.

Our final stop was Pho Bo 81. Despite being painfully full, I managed to devour their heavenly pho (traditionally a beef noodle soup from Hanoi, it’s a staple throughout Vietnam and can also be made with chicken). The restorative broth was greaseless and fragrant, redolent of lime, chile, and star anise.

The next morning, Nam took me on a motorbike tour of the villages and rice paddies in the surrounding countryside. Rice is more than just the staple of Vietnamese cuisine, although it is eaten at every meal in some form. Rice is also intricately linked to the country’s culture, folklore, festivals, and social mores. Around noon, Nam pulled the bike up to a roadside shack beside the Cau Lung Bridge. There, we ate plate after plate of banh uot, a Nha Trang specialty of steamed rice noodle sheets, garnished with powdered dried shrimp and scallions.

After lunch, we visited Dien Thuy village, where I helped make rice paper at the home of a woman who supplies the local community. She soaked, then milled the rice by hand, Next, she mixed it with water to make a batter, and poured frisbee-sized circles onto a bamboo and cloth steamer fueled by the rice husks. The disks were then set to dry on woven bamboo ladders.

Next, we visited the Vinh family, who operate a small rice noodle factory out of their home. Outside of the major cities, rice paper and noodles are made in similar factories, often by hand (the Vinh’s had just purchased a machine to cut the noodles). It’s repetitive, exhausting, time-consuming work. My two-day motorbike journey took me into the origins of not just my beloved street food, but the very soul of Vietnamese culture.

Ana Mandara’s culinary motorbike tours are approximately $40.00, and are offered only by personal request. Cooking classes and market tours also available.

Click here to learn how to make banh cuon (steamed rice crepes with ground pork and mushrooms).

Photo of the Day (1.31.2010)

It’s tough to take really good candid photos of strangers. First you have to work up the courage to talk to them. Plus you have to convince your subject not to “pose” for you. It’s tricky business. That’s why I’m so impressed with Flickr user don.wright for catching this Vietnamese fisherman in action. The toothy smile, combined with the photogenic seaside background helps us catch a glimpse of our subject’s true personality.

Want your pics considered for Gadling’s Photo of the Day? Submit your best ones here.

Best beach food. Read this and you’ll be hungry

Reading Concierge.com’s article on the world’s 13 best beach foods right before lunch is one way to heighten the sense of wanting to eat–and now!

When I read about the grilled fish on a beach in Vietnam, I had to stifle a whimper. Oh, how I loved that grilled fish I had on the beach in Vietnam. In Nha Trang, my husband and I hired two women to cook us a private dinner. Concierge.com suggests a grilled fish meal at the Palm Restaurant on Phu Quoc island. Fish in Vietnam is superb. At least all the fish I’ve eaten there.

Another suggestion that has me salivating is steamed lobster in Maine. Oh, how that would be so perfect for lunch. Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston is Concierge.com’s pick. I’ve been to Thomaston. It’s a lovely place with or without the lobster, but why not with?

Since I’ll be in Mykonos in August, the mezes description caught my attention as well. The place to get this assortment of appetizer, snack-like dishes is Kiki’s (in photo).

The article presents other beach foods that range from fish tacos to paella to grilled octopus. What I like about the suggestions are that they aren’t snooty foods, but are an accessible price to most travelers because they are regional. Regional food also adds to the assurance of quality. I have to go eat lunch now. I’m starving.