feast middle eastern comfort food
Travel Itch logo
The travel itch, food and drink from around the globe

Bites and Brews

The Cure a Day Keeps Hunger Away: Pittsburgh's Fine-Dining Gem

By Muna Salloum

Cure Restaurant © Muna Salloum

Cure had been recommended by my colleagues in Pittsburgh as one of the city's best places to eat.  That evening as my father and I entered Cure, we knew that they had a good point, as the restaurant was a beehive of activity.  Every table was occupied and the commotion of voices filled the air.  “Aha! ” I thought. “They were right.  The place is a magnet for foodies.”         

“Cure” is a fascinating name for a trendy, upbeat neighbourhood restaurant showcasing the talents of a creative chef whose small menu is focused on what he calls “local urban Mediterranean foods” and his dishes “a reflection of the seasons in western Pennsylvania” and the bounty of the area's local organic farms.         

Now I faced an obstacle.  As we were led to our tables, that one dilemma that has haunted me in restaurants through the years once again came up: darkness.  There was still a bit of light thanks to what was left of the setting sun, but seated at the table, I had to use the wicker candle in order to read the menu.  A dimly lit dining area, for me, is a drawback to fine dining.  Others find it a plus for romance – but seriously, not every customer is looking for love when they want to eat good food.        

Appetizer © Muna Salloum

As we sat, I could make out the simple elegance of the dining area's design.  Although the room was dark, I could still make out that the place was exquisitely clean and rustic looking.  I inched my way closer to the candle on the table to read the menu.  A small selection of dishes was listed for appetizers, snacks, pastas and entrees, as was a handful of desserts.  However, it is Cure's signature salumi – featured cured meats – that draws the crowds.  For me, it was an absolutely incredible learning experience to know that so many varieties of in-house, meticulously cured meats could have so many flavours.  Being powerfully prone to addiction, I felt that I had to try everything.          

On our visit, there were six varieties of salumi de mare, one of the featured appetizers:  salted dried codfish, trout, tuna, steelhead roe, calamari, and swordfish. My choice – the tuna – was moist and tasty and presented as the definition of fine dining.       

Entree © Muna Salloum

When it came to the entrees, chicken, duck, pork, beef and pastas à haute cuisine were the choices – all paired with homemade relishes, marinated vegetables, herbs, and even fruit. I flip-flopped between choosing the Heritage Farms Chicken served with peaches, bacon, pesto and polenta, or the Cocoa Tagliatelle Pasta teemed with Taleggio and Beemster cheeses, mushroom sauce, hazelnuts and watercress.  My father decided on the Meyer Ranch Hanger Steak paired with Lyonnais potatoes – tender and spiced – alongside the porcini aioli and caramelized onion.  Jealous of his choice, we decided to share the steak that turned out to be unbelievably delicious.  I dipped my slices of meat that were sided with roasted romaine lettuce into the arugula pesto, and then moved on immersing my meat into the soft fried egg, all of which were swerved on a large wooden platter.  It was pure delight, pure pleasure.  Of course, I kept moving the candle closer to the platter to determine where my fork was headed!         

One of the best moments of the dinner was when Justin Severino, chef and co-owner of Cure, came to our table to welcome us.  When I asked the chef why the name Cure, he said, “It's simple.  My food cures the hungry. ” I didn't need his advice on the definition as I became “cured” by filling my empty stomach.         

After graduating from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh, Chef Justin headed off to Santa Cruz to work at the then newly opened Manresa Restaurant, an establishment that adheres to farm-to-table ethics.  With his training there he transitioned back to Pittsburgh, where opportunities for young people were opening up.         

Chef Justin comes from a family of great home cooks.  This familial tradition is also part of why his food is so close to the heart.  Not just family tradition, as he explained, but also history influences him in developing his epicurean dishes.  What he does that is so unique is his modern presentations of what is rooted in history.  Cure's menu, according to Chef Justin, is an expression of himself – constantly changing.         

Cure opened in December 2011, and in 2012 Bon Appétit magazine named it as one of the Top 50 Best New Restaurants in the U.S.  Cure is what its name implies – a cure for hunger and a venue for appreciating nature's bounty in a sophisticated yet rustic manner.  This is food at its best, thanks to the talents and determination of a creative chef who believes that history is the determinant of the creative element in cooking.

The Kawarthas' Lantern Restaurant Invites Vacationers to Gourmet Heaven

By Habeeb Salloum

Stoney Mule Drink ©  Habeeb Salloum
Stoney Mule Drink © Habeeb Salloum

As our group of ten sipped on Stoney Mules – a drink made of vodka, ginger-rhubarb shrub, mint and club soda – on the patio of Lantern Restaurant & Grill, located on the edge of Stoney Lake in the Kawartha region of Ontario, I was content.  Taking in the view of nature's handiwork, I could understand why this part of the province is so popular with tourists. The view of the lake's tree-covered shoreline and the restaurant's beautiful design combine to make the Lantern an alluring eating place, where one can dine and feel the enticement of nature.  So beautiful is the region that the Ojibwa gave it the name kawartha, meaning land of shining waters.

In this scenic setting of nature's best, the Lantern stands as a beacon, calling vacationers to fine dine amid the fresh country air.  Located at McCracken's Landing on Stoney Lake, 45 kms north of Peterborough, this dining place is a gem of gastronomic ingenuity created by co-chefs and owners, Geoff and Lesley Kirkland. 

Stoney Mule Drink © Habeeb Salloum
Chef's Special © Habeeb Salloum

After our drinks on the spectacular patio with a breathtaking view of the lake, we entered the warm and inviting atmosphere of the restaurant.  It had a feeling of elegance. Our waiters were well mannered, well trained and well versed about every item on the menu.  The restaurant ran like clockwork.  In the words of Geoff, the policy of the restaurant is that a happy staff makes for happy customers that make for happy shareholders.  On the edge of the beautiful waters of Stoney Lake, this entrepreneur had well described a cycle of success.

Both Geoff and Lesley's goal is to offer the best of Peterborough and the Kawarthas from farm to table.  Using only local ingredients, they have achieved a level of creativity in offering new dishes. They have classic dishes but with what they call innovative and modern twists.  Because they rely on the ingredients from farms within their vicinity, they have a seasonal rotating menu, as well as daily food and drink specials.

Stoney Mule Drink © Habeeb Salloum
Co-owner & co-chef Geoff Kirkland © Habeeb Salloum

For example, the night we visited the establishment, we were offered their tapas-style Chef's Special, a mélange of everything fresh from their kitchen that evening.  The meal that followed was no less innovative, tasty, and memorable.  It started with a creamy, rich mushroom soup paired with steamed, then grilled, artichokes accompanied by a tangy dipping sauce.  For the entrée, we had a tender, flaky, baked perch sitting atop small cubes of roasted spiced potatoes and grilled asparagus, with a lemony slightly tangy sauce dribbled all over. Texture, flavour, and presentation were phenomenal. 

This luxurious dinner ended with a flaky, light, butter tart from which oozed a slightly runny hot filling, the likes of which none of our group had ever come across.  Albeit Peterborough and the Kawarthas are known as Butter Tart Country (the region even has a butter tart tour), this version boggled the palette.  So light and refreshing, its partnering with a scoop of homemade ice cream spooned over with rhubarb-strawberry sauce was the finale of fine dining for that evening.

As we crossed the evening's shimmering waters of Stoney Lake on the restaurant's ferryboat, the taste of that fine meal remained with us.  In fact, the next morning, while standing in line at our lodging for the buffet breakfast, my mind raced back to Lantern Restaurant & Grill. Yesterday evening I dined like a king and today, while in line, I had returned to the mundane.

Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian author who grew up in Saskatchewan. For the last 30 years he has been a full-time freelance writer specializing in food, history and travel. He is the author of numerous books, and hundreds of his articles about culture, food, travel, history and homesteading in Western Canada have appeared in publications such as the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Western Producer, Contemporary Review, Forever Young, and Vegetarian Journal.

Habeeb was awarded the 2013 Saskatchewan Tourism Travel Media Award by Saskatchewan Tourism for his literary work on Saskatchewan travel, tourism and culinary arts.

Aging Gets a Pink Slip in Georgetown, Penang

By J West Hardin

Ready to Ride with a Cyclo © j west hardin
Ready to Ride with a Cyclo © J West Hardin

Georgetown, Penang has always inspired me as an artist. There is an incredibly rich pastiche here boiling away in the tropical heat, the flavour of which is expressed uniquely on every palette. Colour, culture, weather and history combine to turn even mundane experiences into Kodak moments to cherish. Overall, it's a grand old pile, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, where time was stopped by shifting global politics and economic circumstance in the early years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rich texture of the place inspired me to begin to write poetry. Today I stopped to spontaneously dance in the street, without alcohol or guilt. Joy came welling up from deep within my soul and I did nothing to suppress its fountain.

My lover/wife/best friend of 24 years and I spend our days here wondering aloud and wandering the streets as if we are discovering ourselves and each other like a couple who have come to explore the mysteries of the world for the first time. Turning every corner is a delight as there is virtually no repetition in the visual landscape. Age and nature are constantly retouching the colour scheme of ancient and contoured plaster that holds up tired and sagging walls of sun-dried brick and failing mortar. The colour separation in the magic hours of dawn and sunset are a photographer's wet dream. Every time I come here, aging gets a pink slip. For some reason this place gives me the feeling that I am unfettered and alive. There are innumerable reasons why I love this place and why I think that Georgetown a hidden gem in Asia that remains delightfully under visited by tourists.

One reason we come is to consume as much fantastic Malaysian cuisine as we can in the three days we budget to visit. From our perch at the Oriental Hotel on Penang Street, we have a bird's eye view of the surrounding city and can easily reconnoiter the neighbourhoods where we want to eat that day. The cozy streets are a haven of family-run restaurants and cart vendors serving up delicious Malay, Indian, Hokkien, Cantonese and Nonya dishes that are abundant and cheap. Let me restate for the record that for a gastronomic vacation Georgetown is the least expensive and most underrated destination in all of South East Asia. The food here is famous around Asia, and Georgetown is a well-known haunt of sophisticated foodies from the region.

Mornings and evenings are the best time to prowl the streets for food. You're going to find that the combination of heat and humidity are quite oppressive during the midday hours. If you do want to get around and sight see during the day, try the easy-access hill destinations such as Penang Hill or Butterfly Farm and get away from it all. Cyclos (a sort of tri-shaw gone Bollywood) are very inexpensive and a great way to see the tiny streets in relative comfort with an eccentric commentary from your driver about the highlights and history of the “Old Town.” For early morning starters I choose the Nonya and Hokkien restaurants that line Penang Street, such as the 77 Café. The 77 is a mini hawker-stall arena in a simplified area that serves up popular dishes from a half dozen regions. My favourite is the four-century congee, a rice soup that is to die for.

At night the streets come alive with hawker stands serving up delicious fried noodles and satay with peanut sauce “the way it used to taste.” Stroll along Chulia Street at sunset where the backpackers haven is located and where fast food carts break out a dizzying array of famous dishes. The two other wildly popular areas for dining al fresco, Gurney Drive and New World Plaza Food Court, open to enthusiastic fanfare by adoring food fans from around the Asian region as evening breaks. Dozens of individual stalls in each location dish out age-old favorites. You will not be alone in the eateries and stalls of Georgetown in the evenings. Tourists and locals alike pour into these open-air restaurants to take advantage of the cuisine, cool evening breezes and raucous camaraderie.

Little India, which intersects with the ancient Goddess of Mercy Temple, offers up some of the best Indian-Tamil cuisine outside of sub-continental Chennai. Our favourites are the Biryani rice dishes with Tandoori chicken served with fresh creamy yogurt and coconut condiments. I admit to indulgence here and make sure that at least once a day we have a sweet mango lassi and a masala dosa, the massive Indian crepe stuffed with potato and onion curry. Washed down with an India-style chai tea in a sparkling glass and I'm in heaven.

J West Hardin is a prolific West Coast Canadian author whose range of work spans multiple genres from psychological fantasy, human drama, to science fiction, action thrillers and romance. The author's various works wrap fiction in a literary style while examining the human condition.

All images © J West Hardin

Tsukiji Market, the World's Largest Seafood Emporium

By Annette Greene

Trolling for the Best © Josh Berglund

Trolling for the Best © Josh Berglund

“Oishi,” (delicious) said the Japanese man pointing to the fish swimming in the large tank.

“Totemo oishi, ” (even more delicious) said his wife, spotting a more colourful fish in the same tank.

This wouldn't have seemed like an unusual conversation even in Japan had it taken place in a seafood market or restaurant, but I overheard this couple admiring the fish in a Japanese aquarium.  

People in Japan love seafood and nothing is more quintessentially Japanese than fresh seafood—that which is eaten raw—sushi and sashimi. Downtown Tokyo is where we expect to find government buildings, offices of Japan's major corporations, as well as regal buildings such as the Imperial Palace, home to Japan's Royal Family. However, nestled in a few square blocks in this same downtown area near the Sumida River and the famous Ginza shopping area is Tsukiji Fish Market. Open at 5 a.m., six days a week, its buyers are looking for the finest and freshest ingredients that will make their way to stores and restaurants later that same day.

I had been living in Tokyo for a few years teaching English at a private language school but had never been to Tsukiji Market. When some visiting friends from Seattle insisted that this was on their list of “must-see” places in the city, I was happy to oblige. Waking up very early one morning, Jean, Hannah, and I boarded a train full of commuters and headed down to the market. We walked through the aisles, the auction having concluded an hour ago, and saw customers settling their accounts and arranging for the pickup of their goods. The large slabs pink toro (fatty tuna) were the most prized and fetched the highest prices while the hamachi (yellowtail) was more delicate and would be sliced thinly before being placed on an elongated rice ball, held in place with a strip of dried dark seaweed, and then offered to customers that evening.

Humans, at the top of the food chain, are great consumers of seafood, the best and priciest of which is offered at the Tsukiji Market. The floor of the market was wet so it was good that we all wore our thick, rubber-soled shoes. We passed table after table of metal and plastic bins full of colourful seafood: brown and white squid, pink octopus, milky clams and other crustaceans, as well as small aquarium tanks of live fish. These creatures had been swimming in the ocean less than 24 hours ago, unaware of their fate. Surprisingly, the market did not smell fishy in any way, no doubt owing to its cleanliness and the freshness of the goods on sale.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction © Josh Berglund
Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction © Josh Berglund

We wandered for an hour taking photos, and then it was time to eat. A quick morning meal in Tokyo usually means toast, an egg, and coffee at a local coffee shop, but today would be different. Next to the market were a few restaurants that sold sushi and sashimi, even at 7 a.m. Jean and I were quite willing to partake in this unusual breakfast; after all, we had just seen all of these delicacies in the market so didn't it make sense to sample some? However, Hannah looked rather wary of our decision.

“I don't like to eat fish, ” she explained.

We turned to her, our eyes widening in disbelief. Hannah had gotten up very early for an expedition to the famous market, yet she did not eat fish! We walked a block from the market and found a small sushi-ya with only ten tables. Two of us ordered a “breakfast set” which included six pieces of sushi and a bowl of miso soup. Accompanying this were slices of pink pickled ginger and a little mound of green wasabi to add to our soy-sauce-dipping dish. Luckily, Hannah was able to order some sushi rolls with egg and cucumber, so she did not go hungry that morning. Jean and I, having had our fill of some of the freshest raw fish we would ever be served, along with Hannah, were all in agreement that breakfast certainly had been “oishi”.

Visit Japan-guide.com for current information on how to see the tuna auction and Tsukiji Market when you are in Tokyo.


Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C.She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication. All images © Josh Berglund; See more of Josh's images here.

The (In)Dispensable Phrasebook

By Tony Kicinski

Thank Corporatists for Logos © Tony Kicinski
Thank Corporatists for Logos © Tony Kicinski

Clutching a foreign-language phrasebook like a security blanket always inspires me with confidence when I am travelling. I feel I can learn a few key phrases and muddle through, although reality often proves me wrong. An evening in Moscow was the most recent ego-bruising adventure.

When my wife and I entered a downtown restaurant, an ambiance of hushed elegance greeted us. We stood with mouths agape, admiring the rich dark wood paneling, the paintings in ornate gilt frames, the crystal chandeliers. Well-spaced tables were covered in the finest, white damask and set with delicate goblets and highly polished silverware that sparkled. This was not a spot visited by the average Muscovite or tourist. It was also not for us; we were hoping for a more typical dining experience.

Before we were able to escape, a tuxedoed maître d' materialized and greeted us in Russian. Observing our blank expressions, he paused, and said in heavily accented English, “Come, come. I speak English. We help each other. ” He snatched the Russian phrase book from my hand, flipped a few pages, and pointed to the sentence “A table for two by the window, please. ”

“Come, come, ” he said.

As we passed the bar, a scowling gentleman in a navy blue business suit burst through a door behind it, grabbed a sheaf of papers off the surface and shoved it into a drawer. He spun around and disappeared through the door.

We were the only customers. Our table was indeed by a window, but a black wall behind the stained glass blocked any view of the outside world. We chuckled until we realized that the intention might be to conceal the regular patrons from passersby.

A waiter brought us menus. Another man, sporting a white apron and cook's hat, poked his head around a swinging door to peer at us, and belched a laugh. As he retreated, we noticed the heavy stillness in the room and a lack of any cooking aromas. We looked at each other and frowned.

Opening the smooth, black calfskin covers of the menus, we were horrified to see several lines of Russian prose describing each item. There was no hope of deciphering all those words with my puny phrase book. Our eyes met over the menus and we shook our heads. This was too much to cope with. We decided to leave. Out came the phrase book.

The maître d' was gracious when I stammered that I couldn't understand the menu. He smiled, nodded his head, and strode to open the entrance door. He was obviously relieved that we had come to our senses. The memory of that adventure haunts us, and our curiosity about the restaurant remains. We regret not having had the presence of mind to write down its name to follow up. That evening, we still needed to find a place to eat. We had seen another “PECTOPAH” sign, which transcribes into “RESTORAN, ” between our hotel and this strange establishment. It was half a block up a dark street, but we decided the short walk would still be safe. Another choice was to retreat to the dining room in the hotel; however, we wanted to experience the world outside the security of the hotel's cocoon.

On entering the restaurant, we felt a surge of relief. A jazz piano and tantalizing aromas invited us farther in. Casually dressed people sitting at tables and in booths were eating, drinking and chatting. Our entrance created no sensation. A smiling waitress in jeans and a t-shirt escorted us to a booth. Regaining my confidence, I decided to use the Russian phrases I had rehearsed. “Good evening, two glasses of red wine please, ” came out missing a couple of words: “Dawb-rihy vyeh-cherh, dvah vee-nah pah-zhah-loo-stah. ” I raised two fingers despite my best intentions not to do so. The waitress asked something that included the word for “red, ” and so I repeated it, “krahs-nihy. ” She nodded and walked away with a grin that told me my Russian left a lot to be desired.

The two-page, cardboard menu looked manageable and the dessert section included pictures. Our outlook improved immensely. All we wanted was a simple snack. We decided to order typical Russian dishes: borsch and dessert crepes. When the waitress returned with the wine, I asked for borsch but she said “No borsch. ” Panic seized my mind. I flipped through the phrasebook searching for the Russian word for soup, but my wife came to the rescue. She made spooning motions from an imaginary bowl in her hand. The waitress said something unintelligible. We nodded our heads, hoping for the best.

The mystery soup arrived, and it was delicious. Later, I found the Russian word for soup in the phrase book. It was “soop. ”

After retiring from a busy, computer-filled work life, Tony Kicinski is enjoying the freedom to explore and expand his many interests. He is focusing on creative writing, especially composing short stories, and researching and recording the history of his family. An excerpt from the family history was awarded an honourable mention in the 2008 Days Road Writers' Workshops "Summer Days" Memoir Writing Contest.

Tony resides in Markham, Ontario. He and his wife delight in spending time with their children and grandchildren, cottaging and travelling. Tony is working on upgrading his basic knowledge of French and Spanish language and culture, and maintaining his Polish roots. He also enjoys skiing and hiking.

Thai on the Run: The Evolution of Food Carts

By J West Hardin

Eating is a Social Affair © J West Hardin
Eating is a Social Affair © J West Hardin

I first came to Thailand by way of India thirty-seven years ago. At that time the quality and variety of available food astounded me such as I had never witnessed in any of the third world countries I had visited up until that time. I had become accustomed to eating the spicy deep-fried street food in alleyways and railway stations of the sub-continental cities, and before that a carbohydrate-centric diet in the mountains of South America. I had a hunger for something other than curried vegetables on rice or beefsteak asado and papas fritas. Mass budget tourism had not been invented; guide books wouldn't be published for a few years. There were very few tourists or business travelers visiting the Kingdom of Thailand, except for the purists and an executive class of NGO workers and embassy staff.

Thai urban infrastructure had not diversified into the kaleidoscope that we observe today. It was a golden age for backpacker travel to Thailand, but at the same time travel was more difficult and rudimentary. It was commo”n for travelers' chance meetings at bus stops, border stations and airports to be used as opportunities to exchange information on accommodation and expectations as as each retraced each other's ground. (Sorry girls but I never once met any women traveling on their own in those early years.) It was a bit like the meeting of Dr. Stanley and Dr. Livingstone at times. In areas of the world that were considered to be “hard travel, ” I remember exchanging food dreams with fellow routards when good food was scarce and rare gastronomic gems that couldn't be missed were plotted out in crude cartographic glyphs into dog-eared diaries. It may sound strange but after several isolated months of nothing but rice and okra, or their dreary equivalents, you dream of fast food favourites whether you like it or not. There are brilliant foods in every country, but without the hard work of a guide-book travel writer or local contact they can be hard to find. A revolution in the cuisine offerings of Thailand has changed that.

This is Love © J West Hardin This is Love © J West Hardin

When I arrived in Bangkok in 1975 I found it a wonderland of street food- cart cuisine. My first experience was with the amazing barbeque chicken that had been thoroughly marinated in sweet chili and crushed tamarind, then grilled to perfection over charcoal fire. The savoury Som Tam papaya salads with fresh lime and sizzling hot bird chilies became an everyday favourite. After that I ate everything that could be slipped onto a stick and eaten standing up. On any given day I would eat anything from water beetles deep fried in garlic oil to sweet fish balls candied with chili sauce. Fried rice and noodle dishes are whipped up on pedestals of blue-bottled gas flame. The roar of that gas jet is like music to my ears. Pad Thai is a traditional fried-rice noodle dish topped with crunchy baked peanuts and alive with the flavors of kaffir lime, palm sugar and lemon grass. A side dish that accompanies this popular favourite includes small green onions, bean sprouts, a square of fresh lime and a sliver of banana heart. It is the custom to share a table at the hawker's stall. The etiquette is to pull up a chair and dig in, no reservations. I noted that the locals rely on these food vendors for at least a couple of meals a day and the bulk of the customers were not transients like myself. The vendors take this responsibility very seriously and treat the art of open food vending with respect and skill.

The Thais didn't appear to be suffering any ill effects as opposed to the general malaise I'd witnessed in India, myself included, so I took my queue and dove right in. Common sense in eating at food stalls in the street still prevails, and it's always best to eat what is cooked fresh in front of youand delivered to your plate steaming hot. In over thirty years eating from the stalls in Asia I have rarely become ill, certainly with no greater frequency than I have after eating at restaurants in Europe or North America. There is one proviso, and it's almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The food may be fresh and cooked right, but looking closely you'll notice that there is no fresh running water. The dishes, cups, utensils and glasses are rinsed continually in the same bucket behind the stall front. It is not the food that will make you sick, it is the contaminated dishes and drinking vessels. So choose your food cart drinks and dishes wisely. Many modern vendors have solved this problem by using Styrofoam plates and plastic forks, spoons and straws. Speaking of water, use bottled exclusively, even to brush your teeth.

A government initiative in the 1990s changed the food cart scene in Bangkok forever. We purists decried the move at first but I realize now that it was for the best. Although not ubiquitously acknowledged, the law regarding the offering of cooked food on the street was changed to force a majority of the street vendors into the new food court spaces that were being made available in a new wave of mall construction. In twenty years I couldn't count how many new malls have been built in and around the city. They have sprouted like mushrooms seemingly overnight and continue to develop at a mind-numbing pace. I have to conclude this was both a good business decision to benefit mall developers' revenues and a huge improvement in public health and sanitation. In truth the street carts did leave behind a tremendous amount of garbage to slog through at the end of the day with all the accompanying vermin issues to contend with.

The Modern Street Cart © J West Hardin
The Modern Street Cart © J West Hardin

The food courts of the 21st century are the street carts of the last, only better. The variety of dishes is still incredible, the environment is air-conditioned and clean. Local people love the food courts and use them as an extension of their own kitchens. Food court food is cheap; there is no other word to describe it. A nice meal of noodles or rice will range from thirty-five baht (one US dollar as of writing) to sixty baht (two US dollars) and includes fresh meat, seafood and vegetables, all served on a plate washed in running water with detergent. Yes, it is romantic to eat a Pad Thai in the street at midnight after a wander out, but when you can take your children out to eat for an inexpensive and healthy meal in air-conditioned comfort you would be joining the mindset of the Thai people in foregoing the outside cart and going inside to be served by an apron clad server with cleanly washed hands in a supervised setting. I won't belabour not having to deal with flies and mosquitoes in the outdoor spaces, especially at night; it goes without saying. Remember, 99.9% of the patrons of all food outlets are local Thai. Tourists make up an insignificant percentage of the overall trade.

Indoor food courts can be found in every shopping mall or large commercial application. You will buy a swipe/credit card from the central register and use it at any of the standard price carts. Everyone pays the same, the quality of the food is homogeneous. Management has thoughtfully assured that at least a minimum of English is spoken at most outlets. Thai people themselves have taken to speaking English with great delight and will want to practice their new-found skills on you at every opportunity. This is a profoundly important and underrated benefit for today's visitor to Thailand, considering that twenty years ago there was almost no English spoken anywhere in the country. If you're smart you'll be generous with your hospitality, Thai people are good hearted and will reciprocate kindness without reservation. The term "Land of Smiles" was not an entirely made-up slogan for the tourism industry. Of course the standard restaurant logic applies in Bangkok as anywhere: "Be kind to people who serve your food."

J West Hardin is a prolific West Coast Canadian author whose range of work spans multiple genres from psychological fantasy, human drama, to science fiction, action thrillers and romance. The author's various works wrap fiction in a literary style while examining the human condition.

All images © J West Hardin

South East Asia's “King of Fruit”

By Annette Greene

durian king of fruitsDon't Be Fooled by Appearances © the travel itch

While vacationing on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, some friends and I came across a fruit seller with a truckload of durian. Curious about this unusually large fruit (known as the "king of fruits" in Southeast Asia) with its dangerous-looking brown or green spiky husk, we handed over the Thai equivalent of four dollars and watched while the man cracked one open with a large machete and handed us the pieces. The distinctive odour from its cream-coloured pulp (a cross, perhaps, between almonds and rotten onions) so repulsed us that no one in our group could muster up enough courage to taste it. Thanking the vendor very much, we gave the fruit back to him and walked away. He must have thought we were very strange customers, indeed!

A few years later my husband, James, and I moved to Singapore and had the opportunity to try durian again shortly after we arrived. Vivian, the office manager at the publishing company where James worked, had taken it upon herself to help us get acclimatized to our new environment. She showed us the sights of the city, took us out to sample local cuisine at outdoor hawker centres, and even helped us shop for furniture. One evening, after a simple dinner of chicken rice washed down with ice kachung (a bowl of shaved ice topped with red beans, corn, mixed fruit and sweet evaporated milk), we happened to pass a durian stand.

“Have you tried durian?” asked Vivian.

“No, we almost did once, but the smell was too bad. ”

“Well, let's get one and I'll show you how to eat it. We Singaporeans love durian and they are now in season. ”

Vivian explained that the best way to choose a good durian was by checking the stem: a large, solid stem was a definite sign of freshness. We were also advised to shake the fruit to listen for the sounds of seeds inside. Hearing them would indicate that the fruit may be overripe and the pulp too dried out. We bought a large durian to bring back to our apartment; it had been long enough since our experience in Thailand and we were more willing now to try new things. Luckily, we were driving because it is against the law in Singapore to transport durian by bus or rail; there are even signs in the Singapore public transportation systems that clearly indicate that no durians are allowed. Another big faux pas is opening the fruit indoors for, if you do, its obnoxious smell will linger for a long time.

At home, we carried the fruit out onto our patio, opened it up, and proceeded to each take a section. The smell was still strong but we got past it, eager this time to try the fruit that the local people covet. Vivian told us that it is not unusual for large families to buy five or six durian at a time to share. We had never tasted anything so exquisite. It was custard-like and creamy like a very ripe avocado, sweet but not too sweet. James decided that the best thing to go with it would be a drink of brandy. Our Singaporean friend was horrified.                

“Oh, no! You can't drink alcohol and eat durian at the same time! ”

“Why not? ” asked James.

“Because you'll die… or at least get very sick from it. All Singaporeans know this. ”

James laughed off Vivian's warning as he poured himself a big glass of brandy. The three of us proceeded to eat a lot of the fruit, but it was still hard to finish as it was very rich and filling. Despite Vivian's warnings, James did not die. He didn't feel any ill effects whatsoever.

After that experience, whenever friends and relatives visited us in Singapore, we'd drive down to Chinatown and show them the sights, including the durian stalls with their simple wooden stools and tables. If our visitors were adventurous (and they usually were), we'd stop and park, pick out a nice big durian and proceed to share it. We grew to love this fruit more and more as time wore on, and we appreciated living in a part of the world where it was readily available.

Nowadays one can find durian for sale in Asian markets in parts of Canada and the U.S. They are expensive and I'm not sure how they taste after being transported so far from home. When I see them, I am reminded of those warm, tropical evenings in Singapore when we would sit outdoors and savour this delicacy. James still reminisces about drinking brandy with his durian; however, after that first time, he realized that he didn't need a digestif to chase down this stinky but delicious fruit. A nice cool glass of water would do just fine.

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C. She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication.

Hyderabad, India:
A Palatine Paradise

By Louise Feeney Notley

Chaat Street VendorChaat Street Vendor © Louise Feeney Notley

Nothing characterizes India better than its food. Indian food is India. The cuisine is a metaphor for India itself. It shouts at your senses for attention, but its ingredients do not compete with each other – they live side-by-side, blended together in a rich multiplicity of flavour and aroma. Just like the country itself, Indian dishes are bewilderingly diverse, their spices and flavours outrageously sensual, their colours chaotically vivid, and their concentration in the bellies of the privileged undeniably controversial.

On a recent business trip to Hyderabad, India I had the opportunity to indulge in a wide variety of south-central Indian dishes, from standard street fare to gourmet-class cuisine. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water still.

“Let's Chaat”

When you travel on business to India for a global professional services firm, the trip is usually a marathon of management meetings, performance reviews, strategy and planning sessions, and quarterly or year-end reviews and presentations. My team works long hours with our Indian colleagues, trying to fit in as much as we can in two short weeks. Finding the time to stop for lunch can be a challenge. But the Indian staff love to be hospitable whenever they can, and their favorite thing to do is introduce visitors to some new taste of India and watch their faces light up with pleasure.

One afternoon, on a much needed break, my colleagues took me down to the staff cafeteria and introduced me to chaat – India's version of fast food. In Hyderabad bazaars, office canteens, and on neighbourhood street corners all over the city, Hyderabadis indulge their craving for snacks in a way that puts the hot dog to shame.

Lal Mirch ka Paneer Tikka Chicken Biryani with Salan, Raita, and Daal © Louise Feeney Notley

My Indian colleagues love introducing us North Americans to the experience of "proper" Indian food; they take this responsibility very seriously. Harish showed me how to crumble up samosa – a savoury deep-fried pastry stuffed with potato, peas and spices – in the bottom of the plate, then smother it with a fragrant and mildly spicy yellow pea curry called ragada. On top of this he piled thinly sliced sweet red onion, matchstick carrots, fresh yoghurt and mint sauce, and tangy sweet tamarind sauce. An exotic blend of powdered spices called garam masala, salt, cayenne and a crunchy graham flour vermicelli called sev were sprinkled on top to finish it off. It was the best afternoon snack I've ever had. It will make settling for French fries again seem like, well… settling.

“So, do you like spicy?”

I know there are regions of southern India where the curried dishes are so full of heat I couldn't possibly eat them comfortably. Indian food has a reputation among foreigners for being too hot and spicy. However the chili pepper is a relative newcomer to Indian cuisine. It is native to South America and was only introduced to South Asia in the 16th century by Portuguese and Spanish explorers. Indians adopted it all over the country in varying degrees, probably for its antiseptic properties and effect on the circulatory system. But the cuisine I experienced in Hyderabad was delightfully flavoured and just spicy enough to be exciting.

Lal Mirch ka Paneer Tikka Hyderbadi Biryani © Louise Feeney Notley

Spices add colour and flavour to Indian food, but they are also part of an ancient medicinal tradition in India called Ayurveda. Many of the spices in Indian cuisine were chosen hundreds of years ago for their effect on the body, in particular the digestive and circulatory systems. Spices such as cardamom and cloves are used for their antiseptic qualities, fennel, cumin, and coriander for their digestive and anti-inflammatory properties. Every spice has its purpose, and flavours and seasonings are chosen to complement them to produce a richly exotic and balanced dish. Chutneys, yoghurt, nuts, fruit, and a large variety of marinated pickle are served as condiments to provide a complete meal.

My first meal in Hyderabad necessarily demanded a local dish. Hyderabad is famous for its biryani, a basmati rice dish cooked with either meat or vegetables, and infused with a mouthwatering combination of yoghurt, onions, ginger, garlic, spices, lemon, saffron and fresh coriander. My colleague Lori Anne and I indulged in chicken biryani and veg biryani – served with a delicious Mirchi ka Saalan (green chili in brown gravy) – a few times on this trip, but unfortunately never made it to the Mecca for Hyderabadi biryani enthusiasts, the Paradise Hotel. It's on my list for the next visit.

“How do they do that?”

Hyderbadi BiryaniLal Mirch ka Paneer Tikka © Louise Feeney Notley

The base ingredient of many Indian curries is the masala, a stir-fried blend of four key ingredients: onions, garlic, ginger and tomatoes. Depending on the region or dish, a different combination of spices and seasonings is added to flavour the various meats, fish or seafood, lentils, cheese curd or vegetables that are added and gently simmered until a rich sensual gravy results. Other dishes are "dry" preparations, where a blend of yoghurt, garlic, ginger, salt, cumin, turmeric, chillies and coriander are applied as a thick marinade before cooking, kebab-style, in a clay oven called a tandoori. Even vegetarian dishes such as Lal Mirch ka Paneer Tikka – flavourful, marinated cubes of cheese curd – are served smoking hot from the kabab oven. Main dishes are served with rice preparations and flatbreads such as naan and roti for dipping or scooping by hand.

The best meal by far that I had in Hyderabad was at Kebabs & Kurries restaurant at the Kakatiya Sheraton. Kebabs & Kurries seduces your senses. In fact, it made such an impression I had to go back there twice … for research purposes, of course. Lori Anne, who has been to Hyderabad many times before, did not put up much resistance.

“ The prawns, Louise! You have to try the prawns!”

Tandoori jhinga are succulent jumbo prawns as big as your palm, butterflied and marinated in ajwaim seeds, yoghurt, turmeric, garam masala and chillies, and then grilled over smoking hot charcoal. The buttered naan at restaurant was chewy and flaky, and perfect for scooping up the house daal, a makhani-style version of black lentils, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, cream and spices simmered slowly for ten hours over charcoal and liberally laced with butter. It's so good they brand it a Bukhara – a house specialty. Every mouthful makes you roll your eyes back in your head, sigh with pleasure, and blissfully ignore the fact that you're going to see it all on your hips the next day.

K & K's vegetarian menu is no less impressive. We rounded out our meal with a riotous, colourful dish called kekashan – a healthful mix of green peppers, cauliflower, potato, carrots, peas, and corn nibblets stewed to perfection in a gravy laced with cumin, whole red chili, and topped with toasted almonds and sweet pomegranate seeds. I didn't just want to eat it. I wanted to move in and marry the chef.

Yes, I fell in love with Indian food. I can't wait until my return trip in February … more research is absolutely necessary.

Louise Feeney Notley is a Canadian writer from Oakville, Ontario. She was born and grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and has lived, studied and worked in Canada, France, Switzerland and India. She is a writer of short fiction and poetry and has learned much about writing and herself in the process. You can read more from Louise at http://myfirstwrites.wordpress.com/author/lulunot/

Breakfast Comes with a Sense of History at Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls Hotel

by Andrea Swanson

Victoria Falls HotelDon't Stare at Your Food © Andrea Swanson

I half expected to see a kaki-clad Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame saunter onto Stanley's Terrace at the palatial Victoria Falls Hotel in northern Zimbabwe. The atmosphere was just that colonial. The hotel, originally built in 1904 as a railway stop along the anticipated Cape to Cairo route, has been visited by everyone from the King George V and his family to Madonna. Seated in a wicker chair, surrounded by tables clothed in white cotton and African servers dressed in traditional waiter wear, I could easily imagine breakfasting with Cecil Rhodes, the 19th century British Imperialist whose goal was to cloak the entire African continent in the Union Jack.

The terrace, named after explorer Henry Morton Stanley, overlooks the hotel's private garden, the Batoka Gorge and the Victoria Falls Bridge that spans the great Zambesi River to connect Zimbabwe with its northern neighbour, Zambia. On a clear day you can even enjoy the powdery mist from the falls as it rises spirit-like in the air.

The buffet breakfast is extensive, as is the a la carte menu: eggs prepared in all manners; fresh cooked meats and tropical fruit; hot scones, fluffy croissants and tasty butter rolls. Traditional favourites include a Southern African sausage called boerewors; local juices – guava and litchi – quench an early-morning thirst. The Zimbabwean coffee, grown in the mountains near the Mozambique border, is rich and dark, and the national tea of South Africa, rooibos, is served as elegantly as if it was meant for King George himself.

I didn't stay at the hotel (I preferred the less-expensive Sprayview Hotel down the road), but the maitre d at the Vic allowed me to partake in this century-old breakfast buffet tradition. Times have changed and Zimbabwe's current political turmoil has unfairly taken its toll on tourism. A lazy morning on the Vic's terrace, listening to the cooing of turtle doves while gazing at the spray from the falls, is now open to everyone who can afford it.

It's only a few minutes walk from the hotel to the falls with its kilometre of cascading water. Be warned, however, that the area along the Zambesi is a national park, and it's common to encounter Cape buffalo and other wildlife along the way. After a day strolling along the park's jungle-fringed trail that, at times, winds dangerously close to the falls' precipitous chasm, I decided not to return to the Vic for their spectacular dinner buffet. In the morning the maitre d had tempted me with a promise of a traditional braai (barbeque) of everything from buffalo steaks to guinea fowl, forests of torches lighting the starry night and Matabele warriors dancing to the beat of African drums. Instead I caught the historic Vic Falls train to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, to experience a jungle of a different kind. But for years to come, I'll be visiting Stanley's Terrace in my mind, savouring the feeling of being transported to a time when both African tourism and European colonialism were in their infancy.

(You can find more information at vicfallshotel.com. Reserve at + 263 13 44751 or by email at pacro@africansunhotels.com. Contact the Sprayview Hotel at + 263-13-44344 or by email at sprayview@zol.co.zw.)

Andrea Swanson is a Nova Scotia writer whose claim to fame is scarfing down a slice of fried elephant heart while on a visit to Binga in northern Zimbabwe.

Kettle Valley Station Pub, Penticton

By Kenneth Fagan

Mini Desserts Mini Desserts © Kenneth Fagan

If I didn't live in Vancouver, I would frequent the Kettle Valley Station Pub in Penticton, British Columbia, more than just once or twice a year. It has an old style charm about it and friendly staff who genuinely want you to be there. On a recent visit to Penticton, I was put in a bad mood by being left standing for nearly ten minutes in the entrance of a different restaurant. That experience left a rather bitter taste in my mouth because, let's just say, I am fussy. If I am not impressed with the staff I will never return to a restaurant. If the staff is rude and unhelpful, what must the food taste like? I wasn't sure if the KVSP could provide me with anything that could cheer me up.

Once seated, it took me quite a while to peruse their extensive menu and decide exactly what I wanted. I didn't want to be boring and cheap, so I decided against going for the least expensive thing. As per the norm, I started with a drink—a Naramata Nut Brown Ale, a dark and pleasingly refreshing beer with a smooth and easy flavour and a nice clean aftertaste.

Being a move-over-soup, bring-on-the-chocolate cake sort of person, I chose not to order a starter. For the main course I ordered a full rack of baby back ribs for a quite reasonable $19.99. The dish was artfully presented and came with a honey chipotle barbecue sauce, corn on the cob and a generous helping of lightly seasoned roasted potatoes. The ribs were delicious, and the meat slipped off the bone like silk off a mannequin. The barbecue sauce was not overpowering or too flavourful to mask the taste of the ribs. My Naramata complimented the dish perfectly.

I was a little disappointed with the rather small variety of desserts to choose from—a Granny Smith apple crustini or a small collection of offerings simply called mini desserts were the only options. You could pick three from about five or six different options, I chose to have two chocolate mousses and one cheesecake. When I first saw the dishes being placed in front of me, hanging off some fancy metal tree-like formation, I was rather impressed with the presentation. After getting over my first impression I thought the dishes were a little scant on the dessert side of things. My eyes had deceived me, however, as I could barely finish them. Each dessert was so light and delicious I felt it a shame to leave any to waste. It was a delicious finisher to a fine meal, and I went back to my hotel all full up and happy.

I would definitely recommend this pub/restaurant. The staff is friendly and accommodating, the prices are fair and the food quality is superb.

My rating 8/10

1070 Eckhardt Avenue West Penticton, BC V2A 2C3