5 Destinations For Excellent Coffee Culture

Cafes are often a travelers hub, not just because you can kill your jetlag with a cup of espresso, but because they are inevitably the place where you go to sit and do some people watching and, while you’re at it, take a moment to get immersed in the local coffee culture.

If you’re a coffee drinker, finding the best cup in town is often an adventure in and of itself, sometimes leading to a city’s most off-the-beaten-path destinations. Remember: they may speak English, and you know what that grande latte is going to taste like, but it’s not at Starbucks that you’ll find your bliss.

Love coffee enough to travel for it? Put these 5 cities on your list of next destinations.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Strong Vietnamese coffee is made with a filter that sits atop your cup. It’s most often served with sweetened condensed milk. In Hanoi, you’ll find a variety of coffee shops, from the back alleyway hole-in-the-walls, to the more luxurious places where you can sit all day and use the Wi-Fi. Check out Hang Hanh (Coffee Street) in the Old Quarter, which is home to many cafes. And while you’re at it, get an iced coffee at least once (cà phê sữa đá if you’re working on your Vietnamese). You’ll need it in the Vietnamese heat.

Portland, Oregon

Every Portlander has their local craft roast of choice, and you’ll quickly learn that although Stumptown is good, it’s not the only excellent coffee in town. If you like your coffee made with care – and we’re talking about both the beans and the end drink – break out of the box and check out places like Coava, Water Avenue, Ristretto and Heart. Just don’t order anything ridiculous like a double skim vanilla latte or you’ll be shamed out of the coffee shop quicker than you can say Portlandia.

Vienna, Austria

While many cities may claim that they love coffee, only Vienna has a UNESCO status going for it. Going back to the 17th century, Viennese kaffehauskultur – coffee house culture – has the ultimate in recognition as part of Austria’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, honoring the city’s distinct atmosphere that can be found in its many coffee hubs.

Istanbul, Turkey

As the Turkish proverb goes, coffee should be “as black as hell, as strong as death and as sweet as love.” Türk Kahvesi, or Turkish coffee, is certainly known as being such, and you’ll find it served in the numerous coffee shops around Istanbul. This kind of coffee is made by boiling finely ground coffee beans in a pot, and then serving the coffee in a cup where the grounds are given time to settle. If you like your coffee strong, this is the way to do it.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In the top ten of coffee exporting countries, Ethiopia has a coffee culture that goes all the way back to the 10th century. In the home, coffee ceremonies are a common thing and can often be quite elaborate. In Addis Ababa you will find a burgeoning cafe culture that offers both opportunities for more Italian-like drinks as well as true Ethiopian style.

[Photo Credits: osamukaneko, toehk, OKVidyo, dorena-wm, John Picken, myeralan]

Video Of The Day: Scenes From Southeast Asia

This video made by Birk Poßecker and Diana Weschke is a collection of scenes from a trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this past October. It takes viewers across these countries via motorcycle, zipline, plane, bus, van and even the back of an elephant. From scenes shot deep underwater to time-lapse shots from the tops of skyscrapers, it showcases many of the quintessential experiences travelers seek out in Southeast Asia.

Mysterious Vietnamese Noodle Dish Makes An Appearance In New York City

The most memorable, awkward meal of my life took place in an alleyway. Memorable for what I was about to eat, awkward because I was a 6-foot, 200-pound Westerner molded into a red, plastic child-sized chair, my knees rising above the matching table, like a Brobdingnagian who went on a walk and ended up in Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, lost and hungry.

When an ancient woman in a conical hat placed a small bowl filled with noodles, pork and vegetables in front of me, I quickly forgot about my lumbering self or that I had crossed into a realm few other tourists here do; in a town crammed with Vietnamese restaurants that cater to Western tourists, these alleyway eateries are tucked away almost out of the view of most visitors.

I looked around: I was the only non-Vietnamese sitting at the dozen or so tables flanking the alley, and realized I had found the travelers’ holy grail: authenticity. But that’s not necessarily what had motivated me to wedge myself into this form-fitting chair. I was there to eat cao lau, an enigmatic noodle dish that I’d read about in an out-of-print book about Vietnamese cuisine.

I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug in.It was a medley a tastes, a flavor strata that was at once very Vietnamese (the fish sauce, fresh herbs like cilantro and morning glory) and at the same time very non-Vietnamese: the noodles were chewy in a way I’d never tasted before in a Vietnamese dish. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

So much so that a year later I was back in Hoi An – this time specifically to eat and learn about cao lau. I was on assignment for AFAR magazine and my goal was to meet the people who make it.

But this wasn’t going to be an easy task. Cao lau was a mystery. There’s one family who has been making cao lau noodles for generations and no one besides the immediate family knew the recipe. The only thing that people did know about it was that, technically, to make the noodle you had to use water from a certain well in town and ash from the bark of a tree that mostly only grows in the area. This was, as I later noted in the AFAR article, an example of reverse globalization: instead of ethnic dishes following human immigration patterns, tagging along to other parts of the planet where certain ethnic groups have gravitated, the traveler had to go to the place of the dish’s origin.

I left Hoi An after thoroughly (and, I might add, successfully) trekking the cao lau trail, thinking I’d never eat the delicious dish again until I some day return to this coastal city in central Vietnam.

But then, one day recently, while strolling through lower Manhattan, I stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant to look at the menu – And there it was, listed under noodle dishes on the menu of V-Cafe: Hoi An Cao Lau.

I went in and ordered it immediately. And then I asked to see the chef. A minute later, Lan Tran Cao appeared in front of me. She’s originally from Hanoi and grew up in Saigon but she says she’s been to Hoi An a few times – the last time was 2008 – and has a good friend who owns a restaurant there. She told me she takes pride in peppering her menu with dishes one doesn’t normally find at a Vietnamese restaurant in the United States. There are a few dishes from Hanoi, for example, that she cooks, which is rare to see because it was mostly southern Vietnamese who fled after 1975, taking with them a mostly southern Vietnamese recipe book as well.

“The rice noodle I use isn’t the real kind of cao lau,” she said. “But this one is a bit chewy, too, like the cao lau noodle.”

She paused for a long second and then shrugged, adding, “It’s impossible to replicate but I tried.”

When the big bowl arrived, it at first didn’t look much like cao lau at all, which is usually served in much smaller portions – this had the feel of a Korean bipimbap – nor were all the ingredients the same. Instead of the croutons that become an integral part of the dish for its texture, she sprinkled peanuts over the barbequed pork. There was no broth, which usually is shallow and lurks underneath the combination of noodles, pork and various green herbs.

But that didn’t matter so much because Lan Tran Cao’s version of cao lau was delicious. And in a weird way, it’s nice to know that if I want to eat “real” cao lau – at least the way they make it in Hoi An – I’ll have to go back to central Vietnam.

[Photo by David Farley]

8 Delicious Street Foods From Around The World That You Can Make At Home

There is a certain beauty to street food: it’s simple and with one bite you have a true taste of the local culture. Some people even pick their destination based on how much street food they can get. But exotic street food doesn’t have to be restricted to the alleyways you found it in. With a little creativity and daring in the kitchen, you can turn your own dinner table into the best foreign street food stand around. Just make sure you get a stray cat or dog to sit next to it for the sake of ambience.

Bánh xèo
Bahn Xeo has always been a personal favorite of mine. The savory rice crepe, traditionally filled with shrimp and bean sprouts, is a common staple on Vietnamese menus, and despite its complex taste you can actually make your own in about half an hour. What’s key in this recipe is the mint and nuoc chom Vietnamese dipping sauce. Try this recipe from Closet Cooking.

Parisian Crepes
For a food lover, the ultimate question when roaming the streets of Paris is often: sweet or savory? It’s difficult to choose between a good crepe filled with cheese or one with gooey Nutella… or one with sugar and lemon… or one with gruyere and mushrooms. You get the picture. Look no further than the Parisian pastry master and food blogger David Leibovitz for this basic buckwheat crepe recipe, perfect for the savory versions.

Fish Tacos
Feet in the warm sand, a cold cerveza in your hand and a couple of fish tacos from the dilapidated stand at the edge of the beach. Life doesn’t get better than that. But for those times when you can’t hop on a plane to Baja, a super easy solution to making fish tacos is to coat pieces of fish in cornmeal. When you pan fry in a little bit of vegetable oil, the fish gets a nice crunchy flavor. The top with all the good seasonings: cilantro, red cabbage, pineapple, guacamole… whatever you have on hand. Foodista has this good basic recipe, which includes a spicy jalapeno mayonnaise.

A good satay, like the kind you’ll find in Malaysia or Thailand, complete with the perfect dipping sauce, is all about the marinade, which means taking the time to let the meat marinate. Of course having a barbecue will do wonders, but you can also make them with the use of a grill pan on your stovetop. Satay skewers are the perfect thing for an appetizer or dinner parties where you have to serve a lot of people. Start with this Malaysian recipe from Just As Delish.

I have a friend that brought this Mexican grilled corn to numerous dinner parties last summer, and it was always a hit. The trick is in its simplicity – it really is just grilled corn with a few additions – making it just what a street food should be. Warm and messy, it’s the kind of dish where you’ll definitely want some napkins. Try this easy recipe from Food Blogga.

A common street food in Afghanistan, bolani is somewhere in between a calzone, a handpie and a quesadilla. In other words: fried, doughy goodness. The key in good bolani is in the filling. Go with a potato or pumpkin base and make sure to employ plenty of leeks and cilantro. If you are short on time, you can use tortillas instead of making your own dough, like Humaira at Afghan Cooking does, but if you’re up to it, it’s worth it to make your own. Conflict Kitchen from Pennsylvania has a solid one, although you may need to cut it in half depending on how many people you are serving.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee
I got used saying ca-phe sua dua (phonetic spelling of course) when I spent time in Vietnam a few years ago; there was no getting through a hot day in Saigon without one. You can of course get really complex with your coffee brewing and invest in a Phin, the filter that Vietnamese coffee is brewed in, or you can just use a good cold brew (let a French press stand over night) or some strong stovetop espresso, then just add sweetened condensed milk and ice cubes.

A sunny afternoon in Nice, France calls for a batch of socca. The gluten-free crepe made from chickpea flour is good on its own, or you can get creative with what you serve with it. Goat cheese and olives anyone? Drizzle with olive oil, serve with a good rose and it’s almost like you are on the Cote D’Azur. Try this recipe from The Kitchn.

[Photo Credits: MyDays, Charles Haynes, Serge Melki, abrowncoat, iPyo, sarihuella, Anna Brones, toehk, Tran’s World Productions]

Video: Vietnam Traveling

So Viet” from Aquil’tour on Vimeo.

I came across this video on Vimeo by user Aquil’tour and felt transported to Vietnam in a way so authentic, I wanted to share. Vietnam’s long and narrow geography makes its landscape and climate dramatically varied. This video features much of what Vietnam is famous for as well as some of the less-recognized attributes of the country. Chaotic motorbikes, outdoor gyms, water sports, canoeing, farming, and gorgeous scenery make me happy to have found this gem on Vimeo. It’s Vietnam traveling captured on video and delivered just right.