Friday, April 30, 2010

Want Some Candy Little Boy?

“Here, small child who will put anything in your mouth, wanna piece of candy?!” said the strange person at the park to my almost-two year old who was running ahead of me. Oscar snatched the candy out of the lady’s dirty hand, crammed it into his mouth and kept running towards the slide. Seeing this all too familiar interaction, I bolted towards him and in one practiced swoop, removed the un-inspected, not-yet-mother-approved food item from Oscar’s toothy grip.

This daily occurrence represents a major cultural difference between Americans and Mexicans. It seems in Mexico, if you do not have some sort of über sugary cookie or sweet in your pocket to give to random children you encounter, you are not a good person. In America, I am pretty sure the stranger-danger, allergy-brigade, anti-sugar mom-tourages everywhere deem innocent food sharing practices highly taboo. Quite the contrary in Mexico; everywhere we go, the general public is doing their part to make sure Oscar is exposed to all of the foods I don’t want him to know exists. It is game over once the first piñata opens over his head. The secret will be out, but for now I am trying to inhibit the development of a sweet tooth.

Having learned that all strangers have pockets lined with goodies, he has become quite proficient at begging. On our last flight, Oscar was trolling the aisle for chips and gulps of coca-cola when the stewardess let him visit the cockpit. Within three seconds the co-pilot whipped out a cherry flavored bubble gum lollipop. He is just carrying around sugar bombs? Yeah, thanks, Mr. Co-pilot. Jack my kid up on sugar in an enclosed space with three more hours in the air and 400 people watching my parenting skills. Do you hate me?

Interestingly, not once has Oscar been offered a grape or a slice of orange, i.e., something healthy. And the really crazy part, no one has ever conferred with me, Oscar’s mom, if it is OK to give him a bag filled with cotton candy or a peanut butter cookie the size of his head. I believe in the States you could be thrown in jail for such careless acts of kindness. In today’s world, trace amounts of peanuts can kill and every other kid has a dairy, gluten or soy allergy. And then there is the whole don’t-accept-food-from-strangers razor-blade-in-the-popcorn-ball fear.

In defense of the Mexican way, which could and probably should be interpreted as selfless sharing and the bolstering of toddlers ability to influence their world, Mexicans don’t have food allergies. There are no peanut free school zones or special camps. Dairy, gluten and soy are not enemies here. Oscar is on alert for celiac disease—he has a 22% chance of having it, because I have it—but his pediatrician knows very little about the test, protocol, etc. It just is not a common concern here.

On our recent trip through Copper Canyon, I made a preemptive strike. I could hear the crinkling of junk food wrappers getting louder and louder as people settled into their seats. Knowing that my little social bug would be on the prowl in no time, I walked up and down the aisle of our train car and explained to everyone that the little gringo child has already been fed, has allergies, and please do not feed him. The car was filled with child-loving Mexicans and my act was viewed as something just short of child abuse; clearly the gringito needs love, and judging by those skinny limbs, lots and lots of marshmallows. People nodded and smiled at my request, but Oscar still came running back to me with face aglow and gluten-contraband crumbs all over his shirt. Some things just don’t translate.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Hamburg beach food

Ah, a day at the beach. The sun, the sand, the vendors and stands and the delicious treats they are hawking on the beach. In Vietnam, we bought lobster tails grilled right in front of us to perfection and squirted with lemon. On the beach in Mexico, I had some of the most amazing shrimp ceviche I have ever tasted and too many margaritas. In Italy, some form of gelato is required at least once an hour as kids with coolers go by selling Magnums and other cold treats. So, let's take a look at the offering on Hamburg's strand, the sandy stretch of beach on the Elbe River situated right across from the port's container terminal and downstream from where Airbus is currently assembling A380s: mmmm würstchen mit sauerkraut und kartoffelpuree. It might not be fresh from the sea (or thank God, not from the Elbe) and it may not be refreshing (although the kraut does have a subtle tang to it), but I must admit, it was a perfect accompaniment for the setting on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon on the beach in Hamburg.

 Aren't industrial shipping ports, like, totally romantic?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Secret Restaurant Series: THE KITCHEN of Hamburg


For Immediate Release: THE KITCHEN, Hamburg's first private supper club, opened this weekend to rave reviews. 

Bound by their love of cooking and eating and inspired by travel, design, seasonal produce, Jon Hamm, a stiff drink, and sharing a fabulous meal over riveting and hilarious conversation, two intrepid amateur cooks and professional food enthusiasts offered a three-course menu based on the American television series, "Mad Men" - set in 1960s Manhattan to 15 guests to open Hamburg's first secret restaurant. 

Mad Men goes into its fourth season this summer in the US and is set to hit German television for the first time this year - which meant the evening was an introduction to two things: a gorgeous American TV series and classic 1960s American cooking with a modern twist.

Guests arrived in full 1960s regalia ranging the gamut from demure Betty and dapper Don Draper to bohemian rhapsody. Real American martinis (none of the sweet stuff) with blue cheese stuffed olives and old fashioneds with maraschino cherries kicked off the evening before guests were escorted upstairs to the dining room. 

Buoyed by a mid 1950s - mid 1960s playlist created by DJs Nathan and Matthias, conversation flowed over one long table where 15 diners dug into a modernly twisted "spaghetti and meatballs" - seasonal white German asparagus ribbons tossed in brown butter, pancetta and green asparagus and topped with morel "meatballs" and shaved Parmesan. Wine pairings orchestrated by local weinhandler Weingut Wein matched each course including Betty's Beef Wellington with a potato and celeriac gratin and braised spinach. 


THE KITCHEN sends much love and owes special thanks to Nathan, Martin, Ingo, Matthias and Susanne, Bölle, Jochen, taste testers, fans and all those who have supported, inspired, fed, tolerated, listened to, instructed, and assisted in ways known or  unknown, seen or unseen.

Watch this site for THE KITCHEN's soon-to-launch website where interested parties can learn more about where dinners take place and when and how to reserve a table.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wednesday Snapshot: Hoi An, Vietnam

This photo was taken just as the sun rose in the riverside market in Hoi An. I have never been a morning person, but the year I traveled through Asia and Africa one of my favorite things to do was wonder around the streets in the morning light peering into the lives of the locals. Life begins before the crack of dawn. The energy is contagious; hearing the sounds of the streets come alive I could not possibly lolly-gag in bed for long.

Hoi An was my favorite of all of the places I visited in Vietnam. From the 17th to 19th centuries, it was one of Southeast Asia’s major international ports. Biking the shady streets, you will see influences from the Portuguese, Chinese, French, and Japanese: elegantly arched Japanese bridges, next to stately French homes with floor to ceiling doors open to the street, Chinese tea houses and women selling French baguettes next to a porcupine of burning incense lite to honor someone's Chinese ancestors. And, yes they all really do wear the conical hats.

India by Rail: Going It Alone

We were running late. I had been in India for all of 16 hours when my friend Saurabh put me on an unreserved second-class train from Delhi to Agra.

“I’m so sorry I can’t take you myself,” he panted as we ran from our rickshaw to the ticket office. He had a flight to catch and I was going solo for a week before we met up again in Mumbai. I was simultaneously thrilled and petrified by the prospect of traveling around India on my own.

“You’ll be fine,” he said as he stuffed the ticket in my hand. I was not sure who he was trying to convince – himself or me. He helped me hoist my bag up the steps and waved sheepishly, then darted off into the distance.

There I was – alone in India. I wasn’t really alone, of course. I was surrounded by what seemed like thousands of other passengers, every one of them now staring directly at me, the only foreigner on the train. Social etiquette in India does not make staring taboo – a lesson I quickly learned first-hand as I tried in vain to blend into the crowd. The intensity of their unwavering stares made me feel utterly alone despite the suffocating crowd.

Arms and legs dangled from the overhead luggage racks. Teenage boys clung to the open doorway. A family of five took up residence in the lavatory for lack of anywhere else to sit. Due to delays, stragglers continued to push their way in. We heaved a collective sigh of relief as the whistle blew and the train miraculously lurched forward.

Somewhere about mid-journey, everyone lost interest in me. Their stares turned to the scenery and I became just another passenger on my way to Agra.

“Madame,” the man next to me whispered. “I would very much not leave my bag sitting alone in the corner if I were to be you.” I heeded his advice and dragged the duffle to my feet.

“Fancy a chai?” The man next to me offered me a small cup of tea. Even though I had been thoroughly warned about “Delhi-belly”, the risk of a debilitating bout of diarrhea was well worth the camaraderie and I thanked him more for the gesture than the tea.

"Where are you heading, Madame?" The group of young men in the doorway befriended me. They were all studying business and working in call centers where they were trained in small talk and instructed never to let on they were outside of the US. “I even got to pick out an English name,” Pradeep told me. “I chose Philip.”
The others nodded in approval. “This company, AT&T must be really bad. The people who call do nothing but complain.” I stifled my laughter and shrugged.

As the train finally rolled into the station, I gathered my bags, nodded to my neighbor and said good-bye to these strangers who, over the past five hours had become less strange, just as I had become less alone.

This post was entered into the Grantourismo HomeAway UK travel writing competition for April. We would love to hear your thoughts on the post in the comment section!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dispatches from the Grocery Store: the non-exportables

You remember that we said we would post not only our favorite treats and sweets but "oddities and things that are not exported for a reason." Behold exhibit A: fleischsalat.

What is fleischsalat you ask? Literally, it's meat salad. And up close, it looks like this:

If that is not close enough for you, go ahead and click on the photo to enlarge - but it's not recommended. Looks like someone accidentally dropped a few strips of processed meat into this container of mayonnaise. (Actually, I am having childhood flashbacks - could it be that my mom used to make something similar and called it "lady's aid" or am I just hallucinating? Does anyone else remember lady's aid?) I am a lover not a fighter of condiments but mayonnaise - I can't go there. So my least favorite condiment joins forces with something that is listed on the package as fleischbrät which is made up of (in parentheses) pig flesh, pig fat, water, salt, potato starch, a "stabilizer" and "emulgator" in addition to five things that no one can pronounce, pickles, onions, egg yolk and of course, "aroma". All I can say is, why? I felt a bit guilty buying this just for this blog entry but then I remembered, MY HUSBAND LOVES THIS SHIT. So don't worry, dear readers, it won't got to waste.

And these little gems are called rollmops which I first assumed was a typo on the packaging. "Ohhhhhh, what they meant was, "roll 'em ups"!" Nope. These are rollmops, little pickled herring, rolled up, stuck with tooth picks and eaten just as yo see them here. I was going to unroll one to find out if there is anything rolled up inside but I accidentally splashed myself with the vinegar they are soaking in and now I smell like raw fish. I quickly abandoned the project and so dear readers you are just going to have to go through your day without knowing WHAT IS INSIDE OF A ROLLMOP. I know it will be tough, but I'm sure you'll manage. Oh and don't worry, my husband loves these too. Pigs and herring do not die in vain at our house!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dispatches from the Grocery Store: Mexican Road Trip Snacks

Map: check. Gas: check. Snacks for the road: check. Guadalajara is well situated for endless excursions, and any good road trip starts with a grocery store run. I just finished unpacking from our most recent trip to the beach, and these tamarind chamoy candies were stuck to the bottom of my purse. Tamarind comes from the tamarind tree. Inside the dried, brittle pods, lives one of my favorite flavors. The sticky dark brown fruit has a tart, sour pruney taste. Mexicans make it into candy, margaritas and a refreshing tamarind water, which is a nice change from lemonade. And chamoy, well, it is hard to explain.... it is vinegar, salt, sugar, chili all in one bite. In this case, it is in the form of a powder, which the tamarind pulp is rolled in. The potent combination of flavors is an acquired taste, but with a huge country like Mexico to explore, there is plenty of time to ponder whether you like it or not, while watching the contorted expressions the tamarind chamoy twists your face into, in the rear view mirror.

It is no mystery why the spreadable marshmallow treat Fluff has made its way to Mexican grocery stores. Or why on a trip to my local store I can satisfy my cravings for home with crunchy American peanut butter and Ben and Jerry's ice cream. You cannot argue the international appeal. Thankfully, when it comes to appeasing appetites the US-Mexico border is fairly open, and the exchange goes both ways. Most respectable grocery stores in the States shelve chiles chilpotles en adobados, and cans of sliced jalapeño en escabeche. Apart from the obvious imports there are some questionable choices being made, like why in the world can you get a bag of snack-able Chicharrónes in the states and not these magnificently amazing Spicy Cheetos?!

I am pretty sure Mexicans invented chips when they fried the first tortilla; since the initial stroke of genius, they have continued to run with the concept. By the amount of space that is dedicated to fried snacks in the grocery store, I can deduce that Mexicans love their chips, and they like them spicy- God bless them. I am not a chip eater, but it is appropriate road trip food, and due to the amount of road tripping we have done over the past few years, I have sampled the lot: Flamin' Hot Tostitos, Cheese and Chili Cheese Puffs and Kettle Chips a la Diabla-- to name a few. Now considering myself an expert, I can assure you the Spicy Cheetos are worth a run for the border. They are the best. Allowing ourselves to only eat them on road trips, I often wonder: Which came first-- the Spicy Cheeto craving or the temptation for a trip?

Come back tomorrow to see what Sniff has pillaged from the German mart.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dispatches from the Grocery Store: German grütze and Leibniz keks

I am craving sugar apparently. What I picked up for you at the grocer's today will make your dentist shake his head. Rote grütze is basically what you might look at and say, "that's pie filling!" or at least that's what I said when I first saw it. It is a fruit preserve that is a cross between pie filling and a sweet runny jam. You can make your own with fresh fruit and sugar or you can just buy it at your German grocers (pictured above the the strawberry-rhubarb grütze from Dr. Oetker - the German Betty Crocker) - it's sitting there between the yogurt and the milk. In fact, grab some whipping cream while you are there to top it off. Or ice cream. And there you have a delicious, light-ish, sorta healthy, German spring dessert. A German fruit pie without the crust in a bowl!

My mom, the diabetic, discovered these at our grocery store and was hooked at first bite. Now I am too. In fact, I never buy them because when I do, I EAT THE WHOLE BOX. They are THAT good. And with a cup of coffee - ALTE SCHWEDE. They are kids cookies, essentially graham crackers with a chocolate cover but the chocolate is so good and so thick and it goes so perfectly with the crispy and only slightly sweet cracker. Leibniz is the German answer to McVitie's - for those familiar with the British baker - my other cookie addiction. I bought the box above for YOU, loyal readers. And as you are not here to share them with me, excuse me while I go finish off the box.

Come back tomorrow for more Mexican finds from Smash!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dispatches from the Grocery Store: Ate y Crema

Ate is a fruit paste made from a single fruit, any fruit- guava, quince, strawberry, pear, etc. It is sort of like jam made into candy. It is often displayed in rectangle pieces the size of a car battery and portioned out, as you wish. A delicious accompaniment to cheese, it adds color and a sly sweetness to a cheese plate. I have chopped it into small squares and dropped it into homemade mascarpone ice cream on its final churn-- ice cream studded with pretty little gems. If the concentrated fruit flavor and added sugar is not enough for you, you can buy it in these decadently tooth rotting rolls: a thin sheet of ate is laid out, then a layer of cajeta is spread across the ate, it is rolled into a long log, then rolled in sugar. Whoa! That can give any sticky sweet Indian dessert a run for its money!

Mexican crema- ok, this isn't a crazy exotic ingredient unlike, say the ubiquitous pickled pork skin that will perhaps make it onto this list later this week, but it is just soooooooooo good. It is somewhere between sour cream and creme fraiche-- somewhere being heaven. Buttery rich, with a tinge of sweet, countered by equally subtle sour, light on the lips. Before I moved to Mexico, we would buy creme fraiche or sour cream in tiny little containers, maybe four times a year. But crema, we buy weekly in quart-sized containers. I have been known to eat bowls of it with fruit for breakfast. Oscar looooooooovves crema tacos- that's a corn tortilla used as an edible plate for a ton 'o' crema.

In fact, come to think of it, an ate-crema sandwich might be delicious times dos! Come back tomorrow to see what Sniff is dishing up!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dispatches from the Grocery Store: The Series

Welcome to "Dispatches from a (German or Mexican) Grocery Store" week at Smashandsniff, dear friends and readers! Smash and I are both foodthropologists when it comes to snooping around the aisles of any market, grocers or convenience store in a new or foreign country. Goodies, oddities, rare finds, particular treats and things that are not exported for a reason - we track them all down for you this week.

Today, I have two for your consideration. First, behold the bacon streifen.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe just because I am a Bourguignon doesn't mean France is my native homeland. Maybe Germany is my calling after all. I mean any country that offers these little bacon strips - and I don't mean doggie treats - must have a lot going for it, right? Even though they are imported from Denmark, the pork producing capital of Europe, and even though they do exist in France under another name - lardons - which by the way is a very poor and extremely unimaginative moniker for these tasty treats - I mean, do I really need to see the word "lard" written there on the package to remind me? I need only look at these little morsels to see that they are about 75% fat, thank you very much.

Danish, French - whatever. They are stocked at my German grocers and I am eternally grateful. They make everything taste better and I look like a better cook as a result. Just don't call them lardons.

And second, presenting bärlauch. Literally translated, "bear leek", and properly translated ramson or "bear's garlic" or "wood garlic" (which I only learned when I looked it up for this post), this cousin of the chive indigenous to central and western Europe looks like the stems and leaves from a bouquet of tulips and tastes like garlic. Raw, pungent, intense garlic. It is absolutely and subtly delicious in soups, with meats and fish and -my favorite- in pesto. As the parks get greener, so does my grocer's produce aisle because bärlauch is now in season. And in season smells like - whooaaa- bärlauch.

Come back tomorrow to see what Smash finds at her Guadalajaran grocer!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wednesday Snapshots: Nice is Nice

What is it about palm trees that just screaaammms vacation?

Bonjour mes amies! We are back in la Fraaaaantz to defrost after what was a treacherous although lovely white winter. We are staying near Grasse but gravitated toward the coast yesterday, Nice to be precise, and stayed for dinner at La Petite Maison. It was a recommendation from a colleague of Ingo's whose been coming to the area for years and claims he has to fight Bono for a table but it's sooo worth it. He did not lie. Their soup de poisson was perfect - not too fishy, slightly spicy, and the rouille pungent. I had the salade d'artichauts violets - a revelation. Am I the only one whose never eaten raw artichokes before?  The Coquilles Saint-Jacques nacrées, rissolées à l’ail was divine. If you loooove scallops like I do - these were perrrfectly seared. The amount of garlic was enough to keep a flock of vampires away - wow. And the Loup de pêche locale cuisiné "comme on aime" was a gorgeous white fish grilled lightly enough to retain the fish's briney flavor and meaty texture. We rolled out of there. And I mean in the full way, not the cool way. Our fellow dinners were an interesting mix of people our parents age, wealthy Russians, English-speaking tourists, slutty Italian girls and their Mafiosi boyfriend, and potential celebrities. And then there was us - the parents of twins who are currently at home with their grandparents - more wine please!

Notice there is only one shirtless dude in this photo. It was about 10 degrees to cold to swim in my opinion but the sun was shining and hey why not get a jump start on that summer tan?

Nice was so nice!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Copper Canyon- So Totally Gorge!

We spent the last week riding the iron rails though the Copper Canyon, or Barranca del Cobre, in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua. The Chihuahua Pacific, as the railroad is called, chugs through this breathtaking region of Northern Mexico crossing 37 bridges and 87 tunnels. With gorges spanning nearly a mile deep and wide in places, the Copper Canyon has the distinct honor of being the deepest canyon in North America- take that Grand Canyon!

We spent a week getting on and off the train, staying in different outposts along the way. It is, by far, the most remote and striking part of Mexico that we have explored. The Tarahumara Indians have inhabited this region for over 1,000 years. You may know them from their sandal-clad, long-distance running fame. They are shy and live in caves and log houses. The vibrant frilly-flouncy clothes of the women are a stark contrast to the dusty landscape.

But, I am going to stop here and leave you with some pictures from our journey.... more on the canyon to come.

View of Urique: the deepest part of the canyon and conveniently, the county seat. Driver's license renewal anyone?

View from a hike, outside of Divisadero.

Valle de los Monjes (Valley of the Monks). Outside of Creel.

Tarahumara women and the beautiful baskets they make. Apparently, this is yet another culture where the women work their asses off and the men just laze-about drinking.