The sushi invasion of Eastern Europe

sushi in eastern europeTraveling through Eastern Europe recently, what stood out to me the most (aside from ultra low prices and varying success with capitalism) is the extreme popularity of sushi. Particularly in Kiev and Warsaw, sushi restaurants are nearly as prolific as the national cuisine and if you find yourself in a fashionable restaurant, odds are raw fish will be on the menu.

My husband and I had differing theories as to the sushi invasion. I figured it was popular as it is the exact opposite of most Eastern European food. After many years of boiled meat, heavy sauces, and pickled vegetables, sushi must make a refreshing palate cleanser and a delicious novelty. My husband, who was born in what was then Leningrad, USSR, had a more subjective theory. He maintains it has to do with a way of thinking that is particular to post-Soviet and developing countries: after the oppression of communism, wealth and status are held in high regard; imported goods once impossible to obtain exemplify status and wealth. In other words, nothing says how far you’ve come from bread lines more than eating fish flown in from another country while wearing Louis Vuitton and texting on your iPhone.

In order to delve deeper into the sushi explosion, I consulted a few expats familiar with the former Eastern bloc to get their insights and found both of our theories supported.Political consultant, fellow Istanbullu, and Carpetblogger Christy Quirk easily qualifies as an expert in my book on the peculiarities of the FSU (former Soviet Union), with posts like how to tell if you’re in Crapistan (perhaps “many sushi restaurants” should be added to the checklist?) and how to buy a suit in the FSU. She agrees with the post-Soviet (and new money) mindset theory, noting “nothing says ‘I have more money than sense’ more than eating overpriced frozen sushi from Dubai. EVERY self-respecting restaurant in the FSU — especially those that appeal to the Oligarch class or, more accurately, oligarch wannabes — must have a sushi menu.” She adds: “Our favorite ‘Mexican’ restaurant in Kiev had an extensive one (I hold that up as the paragon of ridiculous dining in the FSU but it did have good chips and decent margaritas, for which it deserves praise, not derision).” As a fellow expat, I understand the importance of a place with decent margaritas, even if the menu is a bit geographically confused.

Prague-based food and travel writer Evan Rail has fully experienced the, uh, Prague-ification of the Czech Republic after living in the capital for the past decade, concurs with the novelty theory and adds that food trends tend to take a bit longer to arrive in this part of the world. Sushi became big especially as “most of this region is landlocked, it’s quite noteworthy to encounter the salty, briny flavors of seafood, especially raw seafood. Fines de claire oysters went through a similar vogue in Prague a few years back.”

Evan further reports that in Prague, sushi is no longer the flavor of the month. “After [sushi], it seemed like every restaurant on every cobblestone lane in Old Town was serving Thai soup, but only a weak interpretation of tom kha gai — you couldn’t get tom yum for love or money. Now the vogue seems to be about Vietnamese noodles, which makes more sense given the Czech Republic’s long-term and quite sizable Vietnamese community. I’ve actually had some of the best bun bo hue I’ve ever tasted here, far better than anything I’ve found in Paris or Berlin.
But banh mi? Well, maybe in another five years…”

While all this may be further evidence of globalization, it’s become part of the food culture, for better of for worse. If you travel to Eastern Europe, be sure to try the local food and keep your mind open to what might be “local.”

Do you have another take on the sushification of Eastern Europe? Noticed another foreign food trend abroad? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo by Flickr user quinn anya]

Ten things to know about your destination before you go

know before you go travel planningSo you’ve chosen your vacation destination – booked the tickets, agonized over TripAdvisor to find a hotel, and bought the guidebooks or downloaded the apps. Whether you like to plan your itinerary in advance or play it by ear, there are a few things you should research in advance to make your arrival – and your trip – go smoothly.

From airport taxis to local laws to transit passes, what should you know before you go?

  1. Best way from the airport to the city – This should be your first order of business – figuring out the most efficient and/or least expensive way to get to your hotel before you find yourself being hounded by taxi touts at baggage claim or standing in the rain waiting for a bus that comes every two hours. London’s Heathrow Express is a great compromise between an exorbitant taxi ride and a long Tube ride with transfers, but other cities may have cheap cab fares (find out approximately what you should pay before you get in the car) or excellent public transportation systems connecting with the airport. Check out any guidebook or the Getting In section of a Wikitravel article for the best info and check if your hotel offers pick up service for a good value.
  2. How much cash to start with and in what denominations – Now that you know how to get to your hotel, you’ll need cash to pay for your transfer. No matter what the exchange rate, you should find out how much money to withdraw from the ATM or exchange at the airport (note: most airports in the world have ATMs and will give you a better value than exchanging currency, but it never hurts to have some backup cash). Lonely Planet‘s Cost Index is great for determining about how much cash will cover a taxi ride, a meal or two, and other expenses for your first day or so. Some countries will give you large bills that are hard to break – try entering an odd amount like 130 to get some smaller bills or visit a newsstand to get change.
  3. What’s the tipping culture – So you’re in the taxi, cash in hand to pay the driver, do you tip? In many countries, like Turkey, people don’t generally tip taxi drivers, perhaps rounding up to the nearest lira or two, so a 38 TL fare would cost 40 TL (taxi drivers here are so loathe to give change they may eat the cost of a 52 TL fare and give you change for the 50). Likewise for restaurants and cafes, 10% is standard in many places outside of the US and often included in the bill. I’ll never forget leaving a 20% tip on top of an included 10% in a London bar – the waitress was thrilled but I felt like a fool. Figure out what’s appropriate and do as the locals do to avoid stiffing or overcompensating for service.
  4. A few key phrases in the local language – This is a necessity in some countries, and always a courtesy to know a few words of a foreign language. “Please” and “thank you” and “where is the bathroom?” will always be useful, and “two beers,” “another one” and “check” will usually result in good things.
  5. When to leave for the airport when you depart – It’s hard to think about going home when you’re enjoying vacation, but knowing how much time to allow for your departure can help you to maximize your last day. While your airline might tell you how far in advance to arrive, better to ask someone who really knows how long to budget, like your hotel concierge. A Lisbon hotel front desk clerk once saved me several hours waiting at the airport by letting me know the recommended three hours before check-in was overkill.
  6. What’s legal – Learning about the local laws can save you headaches and money. I just discovered that in Warsaw, jaywalking is illegal and punishable by a 50 zl fine, hence why all the residents wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change. In some cities, it’s fine to bring a bottle of wine or beer into a park for a picnic, but in others, public drinking can get you fined. Knowing what’s legal can also help you avoid (or seek out, depending on your proclivities) potential danger areas such as red light districts. Wikitravel is good at listing info on local laws and dangers.
  7. What days museums are free or discounted – Visiting a museum on a free day might allow you to see something you’d otherwise miss due to the admission price, and free nights are often packed with locals and fun events. Find out what days you can get free to help plan your itinerary. Rick Steves’ guides always have a good summary of free (as well as closed) days.
  8. The real value of a transit or tourist pass – Many cities have a museum or tourist card that you can purchase to get free admission at many sites for a set time. But before you invest in a pass, check out if you really want to go to the included places (cheesy sights like wax musuems are invariably included) and if you’d have enough time to really enjoy visiting them all. Similarly, public transportation passes can be great in a city like New York, where a Metrocard can save you time and money, but if you prefer to walk or cab around town, you might skip it. The single best deal I’ve found is the Japan rail pass, which must be purchased in your home country, and gives free or discounted access to public transit and many of the country’s awesome bullet trains.
  9. Where to get help if you need it – I used to think registering with the U.S. Department of State when traveling abroad was a bit silly but a friend at the embassy in Istanbul stressed how important it is in case of a disaster in locating citizens, as well as to help Americans abroad in trouble. Leave your travel details with friends back home, carry the contact details for your embassy and credit cards and check your insurance policy for coverage away from home.
  10. Can’t-miss tips from locals and travelers – Here’s where social media can really help you have a great vacation – before departure, ask your travel-savvy friends on Facebook and Twitter what their don’t-miss recommendations are for what to see or where to eat. Even if they are well-known attractions, having a tip from someone who’s been there will help you prioritize. You can always ask us at Gadling, chances are one of us has been there and can provide recommendations – just post to our Facebook page or send us a tweet @Gadling.

Other tips you’ve found handy to know in advance? Leave us yours in the comments.

Chicago bound Polish LOT flight diverts because of upgrade refusal fight

Most of us have read the tips and tricks on how to get an upgrade, but one Polish man clearly decided that the rules did not apply to him. The man was seated comfortably in business class when he started demanding that the crew upgrade his son from coach to the more comfortable cabin.

When the crew refused, a fight broke out, and the pilot diverted the plane back to Warsaw to remove the rowdy passenger and hand him over to border police.

The diversion created quite the delay, and passengers are expected to continue their trip to Chicago later today.

Remember, flight attendants rarely have the power to upgrade passengers, and if you really want your kids to sit with you in the premium cabin, pay for a premium cabin ticket.

(Photo from Flickr/BriYYZ)

Ransacked museum reopened in Iraq

For anyone who wonders about the importance of the arts and historical places to a culture, head to Warsaw, Poland. Warsaw, after WWII looked a bit like Swiss cheese. An massive effort on the part of the country was made to rebuild or restore some of the important buildings’ as a way to signal that Polish resolve and strength had survived. When I visited there, restoration was still taking place in the historic district.

In Iraq, there is a similar effort going on as shown by the reopening of the National Museum in Bagdad that fell to looting and damage during the American invasion. When an invasion happens, an unprotected museum doesn’t fare well. “Hey, look folks, there’s a whole lot of antiquities and great art for the taking! Yeeehaw!”

Basically, that’s what happened. Priceless artifacts by the thousands were taken on out of there like no body’s business. Some were recovered at the border. Maybe a few folks came to their senses with theft remorse and returned them. At any rate, there is enough in the museum to have it reopen which it recently did, although some say it’s too soon for the items, some dating back 3,000 years, to be seen by the public.

The Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki disagreed with those who said no, are you nuts? He believes that the museum’s reopening, if only for those with special permission to see it–and only on special days is a symbol that “‘We have stopped this black wind, and we have resumed the process of reconstruction.'”

I’m wondering if he has ever been to Warsaw? He could probably relate. The New York Times article gives impressions of those who worked at the museum. They’re with their prime minister. (al-Maliki’s quote is from the article.)

Violence against Jews began in Germany 70 years ago. Seven places to go to remember

Kristallnacht, also known as “The Night of Broken Glass” began November 9, 1938 in Germany. On that night, Germans began attacking Jews in full force.

Over the course of two days, synagogues were burned, and Jewish businesses, cemeteries, hospitals and schools were ransacked and destroyed. Jewish homes were also trashed and looted and many Jews were killed.

The morning after these pogroms, the round-up started. Thousands of Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

This day would have slipped past me if I hadn’t been listening to the radio last night when a local radio personality mentioned it.

As a commemoration of this horrible time in human history, here are seven places I’ve visited that have left me feeling somber and reflective. Each are places I think should be on a list of must sees. Feel free to add your own based on where you have been.

Anne Frank’s house and museum in Amsterdam. Although the rooms are bare, when you see the stairs that were once hidden behind the bookcase that lead to the attic where Anne lived with her family, you can get the feeling of hope and desperation that the Franks must have felt when they went into hiding. Anne’s diary is also on display.

Danish Resistance Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. Sometimes small countries can foil a bully. This museum offers a look at how the Danes would not bow down to German might. During their struggle against the Germans, many Jews were helped to safety in Sweden.

Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in Prague, Czech Republic. Still well-preserved, you can see six synagogues and the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe.

Monument to the Heroes in the Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw, Poland- This monument is located in what was once the heart of the Warsaw Ghetto where Jews were forced to live. It symbolizes their enormous resistance movement.

Auschwitz concentration camp outside of Krakow, Poland–Now a World Heritage site, this camp is a well-preserved documentation of how dastardly humanity can be. The grounds are lovely which adds to its horror.

Dachau outside of Munich, Germany- This was the first concentration camp and served as a model for the others. There is a memorial here written in several languages that says, “Never again.”

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California. Although the Holocaust is a substantial part of this museum, the purpose of the exhibits is to teach and promote tolerance among all people.