Photo Of The Day: Galapagos Crab

The unique diversity and one-of-a-kind wildlife of the Galapagos Islands makes it a hotspot for traveling nature lovers from around the globe. In today’s photo, taken by Flickr user wesleyrosenblum, we find a brilliant red crab in close-up on the island of Santiago. This eye-popping crustacean’s wild crimson and orange hue photographed against the otherworldly black volcanic rocks almost had me convinced I was looking at an alien on some distant planet.

Taken any amazing animal shots during your travels? Or perhaps just a shot of your own backyard? Why not add it to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

SkyMall Monday: A Cornucopia of Foods

Writing about SkyMall products can generate a real man-sized hunger. Living in New York, I’m surrounded by culinary options from around the globe. I can easily walk from the the SkyMall Monday Headquarters to any number of restaurants specializing in the cuisines of Thailand, Nepal, Italy, Afghanistan, Turkey and Canada (yes, Canada), just to name a few. But sometimes I want to experience the flavors of the world without leaving home. Sure, I could have those restaurants deliver, but I want credit for cooking these meals. And by cooking, I mean constructing and heating up meals that one can only hope freeze, travel and defrost well. Thankfully, SkyMall understands that you don’t need to travel to experience the food of other cultures. Quite frankly, it makes more sense to let the food do the traveling while I stay put. Food doesn’t have to get patted down at the airport or deal with the chatty guy in seat 13F who smells like farts and disappointment. When food comes to you, it makes you more special than the meal. Because you were the one worth visiting. So, what myriad treats can SkyMall deliver to your door? I hope you’re hungry, because I’m going to be putting a heaping helping into your mouth today.Famous Fast Food Bundle (Pictured above) – Containing a Vienna Beef Hot Dog Kit, Original Philly Cheesesteak Co. Kit and Anchor Bar Buffalo wings, this all-in-one party-in-a-box comes with the fixings for 16 Chicago-style hot dogs, six Philly cheesesteaks and two pounds of Buffalo wings. Invite your best girl over for an intimate evening and be sure to contact your lawyer to get your affairs in order before ingesting all that brain food.

Sausage Lovers BundleHere’s what you do: Invite over each and every one of your best bros. All the fellas from the gym. The lads from the office. The guys from your cuddle parties. Gather ’em all up and then unfurl your Sausage Lovers Bundle on their asses! They won’t know what hit the backs of their throats as they take in those two pounds of Vienna Beef Polish sausage, 2.25 pounds of Usinger’s Cooked Brats and eight ounces of Vienna Beef Frankwurts. It will no doubt be the hottest, juicest and zestiest sausage party that those men have ever attended. Your party, like the frankwurts, will be “enormous!” And remember, pack plenty of condiments, because while the “natural hog casing gives it a distinctive snap,” it’s up to you to give it a protective wrap.

Johnnie’s Pastrami Dip – Typically, I like my pastrami to be made by someone named Morty or Schlomo, but only Johnnie can turn this delightful meat into something so classy. Because all it takes is “one bite of the pastrami and you know this is real fine dining.” Tablecloth, butler and silver platter not included.

Angelina’s Crab CakesOne bite identifies the meat as 100% domestic blue crab, the exclusive, expensive variety that’s worth every succulent nibble.” Because when you have to be told about an items exclusivity and price, you know it’s classy. Just ask the Real Housewives of [insert name of any city that has been featured on that show].

Fruitasia Easier to navigate than its cousin Southeast Asia and significantly more delicious than it’s sibling, euthanasia, Fruitasia is a treat for all of your senses. “A feast of flavors and sweet nectars – 16 pieces of fruit in all – this selection offers harvest-fresh morsels from every corner of the grove. Equally opulent is its dramatic presentation, making it irresistible to lavish on someone special.” That’s a grandiose way of saying that it’s a basket with three kinds of pears, two kinds of apples and some navel oranges.

Rocky Mountain ChocolatesPerhaps no region is more world-renowned for its confections than the American West.

I could go on, but, well, I’m starving. Check out all 50 food items offered in the SkyMall catalog when you have some time. Assuming you don’t eat any of them, it will be a great use of your time.

As for me, I have to get the invites out for my upcoming Presidents Day Sausage Party. They’ll be delivered in shipping tubes. I hope to see you there.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Work and play in Queensland, Australia: Aborginial Nature Tour

Many things make Queensland different from the other Australian states, including its tropical climate, the presence of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that its population is the fastest growing in the country. However, the aspect that intrigued me the most while I was there was its indigenous population. The size of the aboriginal population in Queensland is second only to New South Wales. However, unlike their counterparts to the south, many of the indigenous peoples in Queensland still reside in regional and rural areas rather than urban sectors. Therefore, Queensland offers some unique opportunities to meet aboriginal peoples who have opened their communities to guests in an effort to share their culture and educate others about their land and history.

One such group of aboriginal people, the Kubirri Warra brothers of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours, offer walks in their ancestral home in Cooya Beach. I walked through the wetlands and mangroves with our guide, Link’s family has lived in the region for more generations than he can track. Many believe that Australian indigenous peoples are the oldest surviving civilization in the world, so Link has more of a family forest than just a tree. As we fished for mud crabs, sampled native remedies and trudged through shin-deep mud, I found myself lost in the natural beauty of both the landscape and the aboriginal culture.


Cooya Beach is located just north of Port Douglas in North Queensland. The still waters and dense mangroves make the region feel even more tropical than the other lush areas of Queensland, and I very quickly realized why we were offered bug spray upon our arrival. Even during the “dry season,” the air (and mud) feels thick and sticky in Cooya Beach. Somehow, though, the quicksand-like nature of the mangroves and the unique flora only added to the sense of adventure that I felt as Link guided us through the land that his people have foraged and hunted for centuries.

As we walked, Link we point out plants that his people have used for medicinal purposes, including berries that excrete a solution so similar to saline that it is used as eye drops. Perhaps the most intriguing example of living off of the land that Link demonstrated was his people’s affinity for licking the rear ends of Green ants. Why lick an ant’s behind? Because they expel a tangy secretion that tastes refreshingly like a combination of lemon and lime. My curiosity piqued, I grabbed an ant off of a nearby tree and followed Link’s simple instructions: “Lick its butt.” It did, in fact, taste remarkably similar to the aforementioned citrus fruits. I’d happily create a line of Green ant excretion salad dressings if it wasn’t for the anticipated marketing difficulties.

We walked down the coastline and through the tidal pools that showed evidence of rays having been in the sand when the tide was in earlier in the day. Within these snow angel-shaped divots often reside mud crabs. Carrying long, slender wooden spears, we followed Link while poking in small pools and holes, waiting anxiously for a crab to grab a hold and challenge us to a game of tug-of-war. A large mud crab makes an excellent addition to any barbecue, and we were all anxious to find one of our own.

Gradually, we approached the beginning of the mangroves. The mud below us began to get wetter, looser and less stable. Our feet sank in deeper and, as we struggled to extricate ourselves from our sinking terrain, each step made the sound of a fork entering a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese. The mangroves, unlike the tidal pools, were a serpentine maze of trees, above-ground root structures and mud that seemed clingier than some of my ex-girlfriends. Within the mangroves, Link pointed out mussels that, to our untrained eyes, were seemingly undetectable. I stared down at the ground, determined to find one and prove my hunting skills in some capacity.

After 30 minutes in the mangroves, our legs were covered in mud, we had all suffered a near slip and Link had single-handedly outscored us 6-0 in the mussel collection department. I couldn’t help but marvel not only at Link’s aptitude at distinguishing flora and fauna in this ecosystem, but the pride that he exuded as he taught us about fishing and hunting in these wetlands as a child. He explained that he was never formally taught any of the techniques that he was demonstrating for us. As a child, once he was old enough to keep up with his father, uncles, cousins and older siblings, he simply followed them out into the mangroves and mimicked what they were doing. As if through osmosis, he learned how to contribute to his family.

As my mind wandered to thoughts of what it must be like to grow up in this habitat, maintaining a close relationship with the same land that your ancestors hunted thousands of years ago, I was knocked back into the moment quite literally when I tripped on a root and had to grab hold of a nearby tree to keep myself from falling face-first into the mud. Serendipitously, however, that root was sheltering a mussel. As I looked down to see what had nearly caused me to become fodder for a humorous anecdote over drinks later that night, I saw my trophy mere inches from my foot. Victoriously, I grabbed the mussel and showed it off to the rest of the group. I had found sustenance.

We made our way out of the mangroves thanks to Link’s uncanny ability to distinguish differences in seemingly identical collections of trees and roots. One could easily lose themselves in the mangroves for hours, as disorientation seems to be the norm once you get a few feet inside the densely packed mud forest. We walked back down the coastline, poking at more holes in a desperate attempt to find a mud crab before our time with Link was over. Sadly, we would not feast on mud crab that day. I told myself that Link probably didn’t catch a crab the first time he followed his elders into the wetlands. I used that as my rationalization as I struggled once again to remove my foot from the ever-sinking mud below me.

We returned to Link’s home where he showed us various types of boomerangs that were used in different hunting environments. He also had a collection of shields and native artwork that he explained in great detail. There was something about hearing the stories from Link that felt very natural. It dawned on me that aboriginal history is steeped in oral traditions and storytelling. The indigenous people’s ability to speak in great detail about their heritage is magnificent, and we seemed to hang on Link’s every word. As day turned into night and the heat and humidity gave way to a gentle sea breeze, our time with Link drew to a close.

I’ve been on countless tours around the world and few have been as enjoyable as my time in Cooya Beach. This was more of a cultural immersion than a tour, and it is something I would recommend to anyone visiting Queensland.

To extrapolate that point into a more general sense, I would recommend that you always seek out tours that allow you to experience a way of life rather than just observe it. Learn a craft. Shadow a artisan. Or simply walk where people have been walking for thousands of years. Just make sure you don’t lose a shoe in the mud.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.

Galley Gossip: Flight attendant vacation – Venice (Cannaregio)

You’ve thought about going to Venice. Come on, admit it. Don’t deny it. Of course you immediately talked yourself out of it, considering you absolutely detest crowds and tourist traps. Yet Venice, you must admit, does look magical, like the kind of tourist trap you should see at least once in your life. But the problem is you can’t stand crowds and tourist traps. And that’s a problem. A very big problem.

For me, too!

When a flight attendant takes a vacation, the flight attendant will do everything possible to avoid anything that resembles a layover. Layovers equate to work. Yeah, I know, work ain’t so bad when you’re laying over someplace nice, but at the same time, laying over somewhere nice usually means you’re at a chain hotel surrounded by chain restaurants, not too far from the airport. Of course, life could be worse, I know. But when you’ve been doing the layover-chain-thing for thirteen years, it doesn’t matter where you are – New York, Paris, Rome – it all starts to look the same. Which is why a flight attendant looks for something different, someplace unusual, somewhere special, when it comes to a vacation – wherever that vacation may be.

When I went to Venice in May, I stayed in Cannaregio, otherwise known as the Jewish Ghetto. You don’t have to be Jewish to stay in the ghetto. And don’t let the word “ghetto” fool you, because this ghetto, is unlike any other ghetto. It’s amazing. And quiet. And tourist free. Okay fine, as tourist free as a tourist trap can be.

I knew Cannaregio was the place for me when I read in Frommer’s Italy 2008 the following…
It’s outer reaches are quiet, unspoiled, and residential (What high season tourist crowds, you may wonder?) One third of Venice’s ever shrinking population of 20,000 is said to live here…”
So where, exactly, did I stay in Cannaregio? See that picture on the right? That’s where. At the hotel Ai Mori D’Oriente, a small Turkish hotel located on a quiet canal, just a fifteen minute walk from the Rialto Bridge. Where did I eat? When we weren’t enjoying the complimentary breakfast of fresh fruit and salami and ham on a crusty roll at the hotel (the husband was in heaven), or the pizza, anywhere pizza could be found, which was pretty much everywhere, we’d go wherever Guido, the concierge at the hotel, suggested.
“You want something rustic, some place not too much money, someplace I’d go?” he asked, looking at my heavy travel book with disdain.
The husband and I nodded frantically, as I placed the 2008 edition of Frommer’s Italy back in my bag. It was a big bag.
Not once did one of Guido’s recommendations let us down. Especially the night we visited Osteria Ai 40 Ladroni (right down the street/canal from the hotel) where I found myself sitting at a candlelit table under the stars, beside a quiet canal, surrounded by other tourists looking for something not-so-touristy, immersed in a small plate of heaven – gnocchi with crab smothered in a delicate tomato sauce.
Did I just use the word delicate? I did. It was delish!
I don’t need to remind you that Cannaregio is in Venice, not too far from everything you ever wanted to avoid. Yet won’t. Because even that is a must see. But then, as soon as you’ve had enough (which won’t take long), it’s back to the ghetto for you, where all of the other tourists who don’t like tourists find themselves. On your brisk walk back to the hotel, make sure to run into a loaf of crusty bread, a bottle of olive oil, a hunk of cheese, and half a pound of salami at the local grocery store, the store where you see that little yappy dog staring intensely into the window. Trust me, this will be one of the best (and cheapest) meals you’ll ever experience. In your room. Away from the crowds. Don’t worry about all those calories, you’ve already burned them off walking from San Marco Square back to the peace and quiet. And yes, you really do need to experience Venice. At least once in your lifetime. For the gnocchi alone.