Your guide to the food and culture of the tropics

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Trekking Through the Tropical Spice Islands of Zanzibar

Trekking through windswept islands with the heady aromas of nutmeg, mace, saffron and cloves lingering in every crook and whispering crevice is the stuff of dreams and National Geographic features. But is it really out of reach for today’s travelers? Truth be told, it’s easier than ever to create meaningful travel experiences in faraway lands. Here’s a look at the famous Spice Islands of Zanzibar and how you can bring these delicate treasures into your travels, life, home, and cooking.

 

Zanzibar Island

 

Zanzibar is the island of red-tiled rooftops, twisting tropical lanes, and Swahili culture thriving for generations in the Tanzanian archipelago off the coast of East Africa. It’s also the world of cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, lemongrass, and vanilla. These crops sustain Zanzibarian families and draw agri-tourists from near and far who traipse through tangled tropical farms and groves of ginger, turmeric, and tamarind growing unfettered on fertile island plantations.

 

The Stone Town of Zanzibar, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is a marvelous clash of cultures dating back to times when Persian traders launched voyages around the globe. Bringing back secrets, fruits, and exotic spices from the Middle East, India, Africa, and Europe, the islanders tumbled them together over centuries of planting and growing, creating a huge melting pot of cuisine that is today uniquely Tanzanian.  

 

Touch, Taste and Smell

After arriving on Zanzibar Island, start your exploration of these prized tropical earth-offerings by trekking in the dirt itself. Many hotels will hook you up with locals who know the spice plantations like the backs of their hands and can take you on walking tours through the small villages and farms of Kizimbani or Kindichi. You’ll meet workers dangling from trees, stripping bark, and picking, plucking, or digging up colorful herbs, fruits, and spices.

 

Touch, taste, and smell your way through the fields as workers practice ancient skills of drying, soaking, and prepping the freshly picked crops. Most outings include traditional Swahili meals and lemongrass cakes prepared by the farmers. Often, there are baskets of juicy mangos, jackfruit, papayas, pineapples, and passion, star, or custard fruits. On the spice farms, known locally as shambas, you can also buy the freshest spices ever to take home and transform your own kitchen.

 

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Stone Town

Back in Stone Town, traditional wooden dhow fishing boats still bob in the harbor, while ancient architectural structures now open their enormous Portuguesa wood-carved doors as hotels for visitors. Picturesque teahouse and restaurant balconies fire up their ovens for sizzling seafood dishes such as lemongrass calamari and grilled mango prawns, always served with myriad spiced sauces. The House of Spices eatery, once the home of a spice trader, now offers a charming guesthouse, wine bar and terrace dining.

 

The village bustles with bazaars and “duka” squares overflowing with lively markets and Zanzibar handicrafts that incorporate spices into daily life. Sweet-smelling cloves dry in the hot sun on kitchen-garden racks, and brilliantly hued spices are crushed to powder for dyes, cosmetics, and bridal hennas. They also provide cures for everyday ailments.

 

Trek over to Darajani Market, the island’s main trading spot, spilling over with everything from fresh fish to live chickens, vividly hued textiles and – of course – spices galore. Help support the rural economy by purchasing gifts from Moto & Dada, an island-wide artist cooperative selling ukili palm-woven rings, bracelets, hats, bags, toys, and flower-filled baskets.

 

A big plus when trekking through the co-op is that you can ask to join locals for a Dada cooking class in the village of Matemwe. You’ll learn to make jam from baobab trees growing on the Matemwe Ridge, along with traditional Zanzibar sauces from cassava leaves and fresh grated coconuts.

Spice Up Your Space

You may be surprised at how the fresh versions of these exotic spices change the way you cook and eat – and how you start to crave them day and night when you slowly crush and crumble your way through the hoard you spirited home from the islands. Hakuna Matata, as they say over and over on Zanzibar Island: No Worries. You can buy the dried spices, seeds, herbs and starter kits online from the Zanzibar Clove Spice Market, and use their handy spice guides and recipes in your own kitchen.

Pick up recipe books such as Taste of Tanzania by local author Miriam Rose Kinunda to recreate traditional Swahili dishes such as Kachumbari, Futari ya Mbaazi, and Makande. Her website features helpful videos as well. A great way to start your own collection of older island recipes is to purchase previously owned cookbooks such as Zanzibar Style Recipes and A Taste of Zanzibar.

 

And if you ever need a real refresher course, remember: the locals will always welcome you back to the hot and spicy, seasoned and sensual Spice Islands of Zanzibar.

5 Northern Thai Foods Worth Traveling For

Can you base a holiday solely around eating Thai food? I’d say so, I’ve always based my travels around food, that’s how I first learned about Northern Thai cuisine. Use this guide to discover the five Northern Thai dishes worth travelling for – and where you can find them on your trip to Chiang Mai.

Before my very first travels in Thailand, I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought Thai food was made up of just Pad Thai and green curries. Ten years have now passed and since I first touched down in the land of smiles, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of this wonderfully diverse cuisine.

Every region in Thailand has its own style of cooking, from creamy coconut based curries in the south to spicy grilled meats and salads in the north east, I love all Thai food. No other food has captured my heart more, though, than the amazing dishes from Thailand’s second city; Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai’s food, or Lanna cuisine, as it’s known locally is nowhere near as well known as the city it hails from. Chiang Mai is one of the most visited cities in Thailand, but unfortunately, a lot of the time, the wonderful local dishes go under the radar with tourists.

Today, we’re going to change all by looking at five fantastic Northern Thai food dishes that are worth visiting Chiang Mai for.

1. Khao Soi – Coconut Based Curry with Egg Noodles

Khao Soi is easily Chiang Mai’s most famous dish. It consists of a rich coconut milk-based curry, flavored with Indian spices, namely coriander seeds, black cardamom and fresh turmeric poured over flat egg noodles and topped with crunchy, deep-fried noodles. On the side, you’ll find fresh lime wedges, chilli oil and pickled cabbage. These condiments are there to tweak the dish to your own taste. Khao Soi is my favorite dish in Thailand, just to give you an idea of how delicious it is!

For my favorite khao soi in Chiang mai, head to Khao Soi Samer Jai, just across the river from the main town.

2. Sai Ua – Northern Thai Sausage

This is the sausage to end all sausages, a meat lovers dream! Sai ua just screams Thailand from the first bite, it’s bursting with flavour from Thai staples such as lemongrass, lime leaves, chilli, galangal, ginger and turmeric. These herbs and spices are mixed with fatty pork mince and slowly grilled over coals to maximise the flavour. The shape of the sausage is reminiscent of an English Cumberland ring.

Sai Ua is sold for takeaway  everywhere in nearly every market and restaurant in Chiang Mai, one of my top choices, though, is Huen Puen on Ratchamanka Rd.

3. Gang Hang Lay – Northern Pork Belly Curry

You might not be familiar with this curry if you have been to Chiang Mai! It’s called gaeng hang lay and it’s a slow cooked curry of pork, usually, belly and shoulder soured with tamarind and flavoured with Indian spices.

There are so many different recipes for this that I’m not sure I’ve had two that taste exactly the same even from the same shop!

It has it’s roots in Myanmar (Burma) and tastes like no other curry in Thailand. The closest I would say would be a massaman curry without the coconut milk.

4. Khanon Jeen Nam Ngiaw

Probably the least known dish outside of Chiang Mai, Khanom jeen nam ngiaw reminds me of a kind of Thai spaghetti bolognese. It’s a comforting dish of fresh rice noodles topped with a wonderfully rich, smokey tomato based broth with minced or sliced pork and ribs.

You can’t go wrong with Nam Ngiaw Thapae for an authentic version.  

5. Nam Prik Noom – Roasted Green Chilli Dip

Last but not least, my favourite Thai dip, nam prik noom. This wonderful salsa is made by grilling long green chilli peppers, garlic and shallots over an open flame and pounding them in a pestle and mortar with lime juice and fish sauce. The result is an amazingly smokey, spicy, salty dip that’s a perfect accompaniment to crunchy fresh vegetables.

This is another dish that’s served everywhere in The City. Again,  Huen Puen on Ratchamanka Rd and Khao Soi Samer Jai serve wonderful nam prik noom.

 

So there you have it; five reasons to make your next trip a food adventure to Thailand’s beautiful north. Plan a trip with some online resources.

Need somewhere to enjoy authentic Thai food, but can’t make a trip across the world? Try one of these gems:

Pure Thai Cookhouse, NYC

Pok Pok, Portland

5 Dishes That Will Make You Fall in Love With Peruvian Food

When I decided to spend some time in South America I went with my gut (literally) and chose the country that seemed to have the most positive food reviews: Peru. I am happy to say that Peruvian food did not disappoint — I ended up staying in that glorious, delicious country for six months. If you want unique travel in Peru or are simply looking for new dishes to spice up your diet then read on and check out my favourite Peruvian food.

 

Cuy

It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to eat what is commonly considered a household pet – and why would you want to? But, when you’re in Peru you have to keep an open-mind. A dish steeped in history and culture, cuy is what the Peruvians call guinea pig. These little critters are usually served whole (face and all) after being either roasted or deep-fried. The taste is a bit like rabbit and nothing like chicken – so ignore anyone who tells you that. I’m not going to guarantee that you will love cuy, but if you are in Peru and you want to go on a unique travel adventure, it is a good place to start.

 

Lomo Saltado

This dish very quickly became a staple in my life while I lived in Peru. I used to eat lunch every day at the San Blas market in Cusco because I could get a big plate of lomo saltado for $1.50. The king of Peruvian food, lomo saltado consists of sautéed beef, tomato and onion served with rice and chips. Rice and chips might seem like a weird combo – we would normally just choose one, right? Well the double – even triple carb thing – is pretty common in Peru. You will get used to it, and even grow to love it, in no time. Here’s a recipe in case you fancy making lomo saltado yourself.

Alpaca Steak

I’m never one to turn down trying some exotic dish you wouldn’t be able to find at home. So when I heard that alpaca steak was a popular Peruvian dish, I rushed out to go and find one. Delightfully low in cholesterol and higher in protein and iron than its cow-based cousin, alpaca steak is basically a super-meat. And, it tastes really good. It is slightly milder than beef, but otherwise you would have a hard time distinguishing the two. As far as Peruvian food goes, the alpaca steak is definitely one of the healthier dishes available.

Ceviche

Some people are wary about eating raw fish but when it comes to eating ceviche it is well worth throwing caution to the wind and tucking in. Obviously be careful if you’re eating ceviche from a tub on the side of the road – stick to restaurants if you can. The same goes for all Peruvian food actually. Ceviche is chunks of raw fish and seafood that has been marinated in lime juice, raw onion, and chilli. You can get ceviche all over Latin America but it is a well-known fact that Peruvian ceviche is the best. Served with sweet potato, Cusco corn and crunchy maize nibbles, the combination of the flavours and textures is utter perfection. If the acidic leche de tigre sauce becomes too much, you can cool your mouth down with a bite of sweet potato. Similarly, if the soft fish leaves you craving something crunchy then the maize nibbles will sort you out. Want to try making it for yourself? Try this recipe.

Anticuchos
Have you ever eaten heart on a stick? No? Peru offers a chance to change that. Anticuchos are probably the most popular street food you will find in Peru and they are much more delicious than the description “heart on a stick” makes them sound. A better image to paint would be succulent chunks of marinated beef heart on a skewer. Head to any street corner and you have a good chance of finding a Peruvian mama with a little barbecue and a stack of anticuchos ready to be grilled up for you. If you’re lucky, she might even spear a potato onto the end of the skewer. Check out this website for info on where to find great anticuchos in Lima.  

What Makes Vietnamese Food Different?

Vietnamese food is unlike any other in Southeast Asia – so what makes it so special?

Fresh. Invigorating. Fragrant. Sweet. Sour. Fermented. These are all adjectives you might use to describe Vietnamese cooking. It’s all about the yin and yang, the perfect balance of opposites within a dish that really makes each ingredient sing.

If you’ve tried food from several different Asian countries, you’ll know that there’s nothing quite like Vietnamese cuisine. What are the elements that make the dishes of this vibrant country unique?

It’s Not All About Spiciness

Unlike some other dishes in Southeast Asia that will melt your face off with spiciness, such as Tom Yum in Thailand, Sambal in Indonesia or Vindaloo Curry in India, Vietnamese cuisine isn’t focused on being as hot as possible.

Instead, the goal is to balance all of the five taste elements of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy. This results in a more balanced, aromatic and subtle dish with a complex flavour – perhaps with a bit of a kick to it but never screaming hot.

Vietnamese chefs believe that every ingredient has “heating” or “cooling” properties. So, for example duck meat is considered cool so it should be served in the summer. Chicken is a warm food, so it is served in winter and paired with a sour sauce which is considered cool. The chef strives to create a perfect equilibrium between the different elements within each dish.

It’s Light and Fresh

If you have ever had Burmese cuisine, you’ll know how rich, heavy and oily the curries are – but this is not the case with Vietnamese dishes.

The cooking in Vietnam is done with minimal use of oil and dairy and relies more on the light, fresh flavours of herbs and vegetables. As a result, Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.

Some of the yummy aromatic herbs that are commonly used include mint, cilantro, basil, lime leaf, lemongrass, green onion, perilla leaf, turmeric, ginger, Saigon cinnamon and tamarind pulp.

There’s a French Flair

No other cuisine in Southeast Asia has such a strong French influence. Although it has been more than six decades since the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam, you can still taste the French culture in every fluffy baguette. The perfect banh mi baguette is soft and airy on the inside and crusty on the outside, is smeared with pate and loaded up with fresh cucumber, meat, fried egg and other veggies. You must try one – they are available from street vendors in every major Vietnamese city.

Some of the other culinary leftovers from the French colonial era include creme caramel and coffee. In some of the chic cafes of Ho Chi Minh City you’ll even find macarons and croque monsieur for sale (at Parisian prices!). However, although coffee in France is served black and hot as an espresso or with steamed milk as cafe au lait, the coffee in Vietnam is enjoyed iced and sweetened with condensed milk.

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Soups are Clear

Both the French and Southern Chinese influence on Vietnamese cuisine shows in the tendency towards clearer soups and sauces. For example, the Vietnamese signature dish Pho is made with a meaty, rich clear beef broth. In these clear soups, the simple tastes of the principal ingredients is showcased. You can taste every element distinctly, from the cilantro to the lemongrass to the long-simmered beef bones and the fish sauce.

This is different to Thai cuisine, which often strikes a balance between featuring the main ingredients and emphasizing the flavour of the broth or the sauce.

These are just a few of the ways that Vietnamese cuisine is different than the food in other nearby Southeast Asian destinations. What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?

Durian: What You Need to Know Before Eating This Smelly Tropical Fruit

I tasted Durian for the first time at a night market in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia with a group of happy, drunk couchsurfers. We purchased the fruit, as heavy as a baby and as sharp and prickly as a hedgehog, then watched the seller hack it open with a huge knife.

As soon as the creamy, soft flesh was exposed the odor hit our nostrils. It reminded me of rotting compost, or what my socks smell like in the Southeast Asian heat when I haven’t done laundry for a while. Even with the husk unbroken, this notorious fruit is so pungent that it is banned on Singapore Rapid Mass Transit and in many other public places in Southeast Asia. It’s aroma has been compared to rotting meat, feces and dead bodies.

I reluctantly sampled a spoonful of the gooey fruit.

At first, I was fooled into thinking that the taste was sweet. The initial impression on the tongue is sugary, but as the aftertaste takes over the flavour is pungent and bitter like rotten mushy onions. The final flavor stings the mouth with an acidic burn, like after vomiting.

I’m not a fan – and I’m not the only one. Writer Anthony Burgess compared the taste to “eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory.” In this Munchies article, the writer describes it as a “hellish monstrosity of Satan food”. There’s something quite heady and nauseating about the combination of sweetness and the earthy, ripe, rotten smell.

In an article in China’s Global Times newspaper there was a story of an early importer who brought samples of Durians to China. When a hotel cleaner opened the door to the importer’s room, she immediately vomited in reaction to the stench of the fruits inside.

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However, a surprising number of people like it! It is known as the “King of Fruits” in Southeast Asia and it is commonly used as a flavour in many yummy edibles including baked goods, biscuits, milkshakes, ice creams, candy and more. In fact, Pizza Hut in China is even using it as a topping! When durian is combined with other flavours such as in baked goods or pizza, some find that it’s potent taste is balanced and more palatable. You may agree, or you may think that there is no way this fruit could possibly be delicious.

Whether you love it or you hate it – sampling Durian is a must when you are traveling in Southeast Asia. Be adventurous and go outside of your comfort zone! Just be prepared with a drink to wash the taste out of your mouth if you don’t like it!

Things You Should Know About Durian

  • When choosing a durian, look for a fruit with light coloured spikes and avoid the ones with dark brown patches. Also, avoid fruits with bits of white between the spikes, as they are signs of over-ripeness.
  • Be careful when handling the fruit – the spikes are sharp enough to cut your skin. 
  • Watch where you eat durian – it is banned in many public places.
  • When it comes to washing your hands after eating the fruit, try running hot water on the durian skin. It will create a mild lye water which you can combine with soap to get rid of the smell.

Have you tried durian? Would you try it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

5 Coffee Shops Worth Instagramming

Coffee shops are no longer just for those with newspapers in hand looking to relax or to gossip with your friends on the couch like an episode of Friends. Shops today are not only trying to satisfy customers with their product but are looking for the total package appeal. From engaging interior design, beautiful gardens, and unique exterior appeal you can now find some of the most eye catching, photogenic, Instagram worthy spots to have a cup of joe. This article is going to name a few of the best coffee shops worth stopping at to capture unique photos that will have all your coffee enthusiast Instagram followers beaming with envy.

Truth Coffee, Cape Town, South Africa

Truth Coffee has been recognized as one of, if not the best coffee shop in Cape Town, South Africa. Its outdoor scenery might not be at the top of the list, but its indoor charm is one for the books, simply beautiful. It is so unique and detailed in its decor and not lacking one bit in its quality of food and coffee. It has a distinct modern industrial design with exposed piping, beams, and lighting, displayed typewriters and singer sewing machines, and a vintage cast iron drum for hand roasting coffee. The intention of its interior design matching the quality of their coffee is both unique and detailedly magnificent. Many simply state, Truth Coffee, is THE Truth!”.

Salvaged Ring Cafe, Nha Trang City, Vietnam

The Salvaged Ring Cafe was ranked in the top 20 of the world’s best architectures in 2014 at The World Architecture Festival. This economically friendly and all around beautiful cafe is located among the countryside of Nha Trang City in Vietnam. The cafe was eloquently designed by the architects of a21 studio and constructed primarily of scrap wood, coconut leaves, and locally sourced rocks. The circular flowing architecture blends into its natural surroundings and provides a feeling of being one with the outdoor scenery. Its open contoured design encourages refreshing air flow and natural light, and its curves provide a beautiful outpouring from the highway where you arrive down to a flowing river and lush courtyard. The natural allurement of this cafe will help you relax while you enjoy a cup of coffee in a tropical oasis.

Dreamy Camera Cafe, Yangpyeong, South Korea

The Dreamy Camera Cafe in South Korea is a dream Instagram post for the photograph enthusiast. A bold red Rolleiflex camera makes the shape for this unique cafe that sets among the grandiose South Korean landscape that is picturesque in all four seasons. Inside its camera exterior this cafe also provides a museum where you can interact and marvel at evolving photos and technology.

Take a few polaroids to leave behind and enjoy the view of the rolling hills outside of Seoul, South Korea. There’s good reason why this Cafe is ranked #10 by Buzzfeed’s “Coffee Shops Around the World You Have to See Before You Die.”

Fair Folks & Goat, New York City, United States 

An entrepreneur and coffee addict’s paradise, Fair Folks & Goat describes itself as a “membership cafe.” For $25 a month customers can enjoy unlimited coffee and tea including signature cold brew imported from New Orleans. The funky cafe is also a clothing and accessories shop that helps deliver inspiration to the artists, start-up staffers, writers, and other laptop warriors you’ll see in inside. The turquoise exterior is too cute for words. Oh, and the goat-themed items will be a hit on your Instagram feed.

Open Farm Community, Singapore

Among the open air and lush greenery this farm to table restaurant and cafe has so much beauty inside and out. This is not only a quaint spot for lunch or coffee but a total dining experience. If you’re into Instagramming your food — this is your place. Each plate is a work of art almost too beautiful to eat. You can also take a tour of the farm from its local farmers and immerse yourself in herbs and vegetables soon to be transferred to the table through the Open Farm culinary experience. A cafe, gift shops, and kid-friendly exterior houses activities for all ages.  Enjoy a hot mug in the cafe or sit out on the patio and observe the wonderful 35,000 square feet of charming terrain.