Kerala Set My Mouth on Fire, Part 1: The Fish Dish of Kovalam

After a 16-year hiatus, I revisited India, spending one week in the South Indian state of Kerala.

Although it sounds like a short trip, I was able to cram a lot of different meals into those days, spread out over three primary locations: Kovalam, Trivandrum (aka Thiruvananthapuram), and Kochi (aka Cochin).

south indian set meal
Truly One of the Best Fish Dishes I’ve Ever Tried, Kovalam, Kerala, India

Starting with Kovalam, a beach-centric suburb of Trivandrum in the southern part of the state of Kerala, one particular lunch was a feast; I can gladly say that it was one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had, the bizarre presence of grape juice notwithstanding.

A typical South Indian set meal is called sadya (സദ്യ, in the predominant Kerala language of Malayalam), and is served with a variety of vegetable curries surrounding a heaping portion of white rice. You scoop it all up with your hands, and can even ask for refills!

If you’d like to see me embarrass myself struggling with the chilies while attempting to scoop up rice, check out the video below–

Although it’s much easier to find North Indian-influenced cuisine in the United States due to immigration patterns, I’d highly recommend seeking out sadya, or even try preparing one yourself … though banana leaves might be in short supply!

Maple Water (Latvia)

I do love the flavor of maple. Freshly poured as a syrup on pancakes or pain perdu, or as maple taffy, butter, or even maple sugar. The aroma of maple syrup is equally tantalizing, though I have been fooled once before. An Amman, Jordan bakery got the best of me when they used fenugreek in a dessert; apparently, when fenugreek is processed in large quantities, a compound called solotone is released, emitting a maple-like scent.

To make syrup and other byproducts of sap from the maple tree, it’s not only laborious, but it also happens for a short time during the year. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the best time to tap that sap — that sounds naughty — is when temperatures drop below freezing during the nighttime, and then rise to the 40s in the daytime. Even then, an average of 40-60 gallons of sap creates just one gallon of maple syrup! No wonder the price point for the real stuff is high.

However, if you’re in the camp that finds maple syrup too sweet, but still want the maple flavor, Latvia might have a solution: maple water. For a suggestion of where to get it, visit the Central Market of Riga, the capital of Latvia, and home to a rather anachronistic set of buildings:

riga latvia central market
The former German zeppelin hangars of the Riga Central Market, Latvia

Built in the 1920s, Riga Central Market’s giant structures first housed German zeppelins, or airships. By the 1930s, they had formed one of Europe’s busiest and largest retail markets, only briefly stopping to serve the public during Nazi occupation in World War II. Although the pandemic seemed to have quieted much of hubbub, fortunately, I was able to locate maple water (kļavu sula in Latvian) this time.

maple water bottle riga
A bottle of home-tapped maple water, Riga Central Market, Latvia

Per Sig, maple water is the maple tree sap in its rawest form, consisting of ~98% water; only after boiling it do you get the much more well-known maple syrup. Consequently, the vendor told me that it should be consumed within two days of opening, as it has a very short shelf life.

Health benefits of maple water include significant amounts of antioxidants, polyphenols, and electrolytes, but it’s also a diuretic, so you may not want to chug it before an operation, or at a sporting event.

Video: Eating at Toma’s Wine Cellar, Kutaisi, Georgia

Let the record show that, at 00:22 on February… 23, 2022, I chose to spice things up with Finding Food Fluency–

More videos!

More food in the here-and-now!

More wanderlust!

With that digital intro out of the way, today I will take you all on a brief tour of Toma’s Wine Cellar, a restaurant in Kutaisi, Georgia specializing in food from its home region of Imereti.

It’s a family production where Toma is the host, first shows you where the wine – and chacha, a Georgian firewater made of grape pomace – are made. Then, you’re treated to a supra, a feast of local specialties, all washed down with good conversation and relaxing vibes.

Since it’s at the family home, you must call or email Toma first; the info is in the video.

For your reference, the first vegetable in the video is called jonjoli, or Caucasian bladdernut (wow, so appetizing!). Thereafter, things start make a bit more sense.

გაამოთ (gaa-mot), or bon appétit!

Sea Urchin …Cream Cheese? (Japan)

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea innards/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too. What do you reckon?

No matter how one feels about uni, what I believe to be one of many cool aspects of Japan is the frequent presence of food fairs somewhere on the upper levels of department stores. Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During my last visit to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu — mind you, this was a few years ago — I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring. Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a nuanced selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item stood out a bit more than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest. Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite of Amakusa uni before a having tea)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when. I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d spread a bagel or baguette with this stuff any day.

Muchimhoe, the Seafood Feast of Daegu (South Korea)

Daegu muchimhoe street sign
Entering the Muchimhoe District, Daegu, South Korea

Given Name: 무침회*
Alias: Muchimhoe
Place(s) of Origin: Daegu, South Korea
Place Consumed: Daegu, South Korea
Common Features: Seafood (but not fish), gochujang*
Background: I’d be hard pressed not to find a good meal from the Korean peninsula…heck, even that duck bbq in Pyongyang was quality.

After checking in at my hotel in Daegu, I asked about representative dishes from the area.  Aiming for multiple meals that would make a marine biologist blush, it appeared that I forgot to look at a map in the planning stages of this trip (meaning, three hours before I left)- Daegu isn’t exactly on a coast.  OK, but it’s not far from one either.  A staff member reminded me of this, and proceeded to introduce me to “muchimhoe street*.

muchimhoe meal
Muchimhoe with Korean banchan, Daegu, South Korea

Verdict: Excellent, as expected.  Ssam* up the gochujang-laced seafood mix into the lettuce, add a bit of egg and dig in.  Even with the overpowering taste of gochujang, I was able to make out the turban shell, squid and conch, but there were definitely other mollusks present.  Generous amounts of sesame seeds were sprinkled on top, and there weren’t any bones either, so there’s another +2.  A very aquatic affair, with seaweed and sea grass as part of the banchan, and the soup had a salty, “beachy” tinge to it.

Amusingly, the grandmotherly-type figured that as a foreigner, I’d have no idea how to eat anything (Korean).  However, she took this a step further and literally fed me the first bite.  So…if you’re into that kind of thing, keep it to yourself.

Glossary
* 무침회 muchimhoe – “muchim” = mixed with various seasonings; “hoe” = a dish with raw food
* gochujang 고추장- fermented, spicy and slightly sweet red chili sauce made with glutinous rice and soybeans; if you’ve eaten bibimbap, you’ve likely seen gochujang
* muchimhoe street – if you look at the linked map, take exit 1 from Bangogae (반고개) metro station, and walk towards the red pin.  The red pin is Naedang-dong (내당동), the most famous area for this specialty in Daegu.
* ssam 쌈  (Korean) – “wrap”

The Borojó Fruit (Ecuador)

market borojo fruit
Borojo (Borojó) Fruit, Mercado Santa Clara, Quito, Ecuador

I have good food memories of the Mercado Santa Clara (Santa Clara Market) in Quito, Ecuador.  Not only did I try a delicious ceviche with fresh squeezed lime, I added a new food to my glossary, the borojó.

The borojó is native to rainforests in Ecuador and Colombia in South America, and has also been found growing in Panama.  The etymology of the word comes from the Emberá (aka Chocó) language, in which boro means “head,” and {ne-}jo is “fruit.” Borojó requires constant high humidity, plenty of rain, and warm temperatures, hence being relatively limited to the tropical climate zones of northwestern South America. Its trees can reach heights of up to ~16 feet, and last for roughly 4 years (via Candelaestereo).

Among its culinary uses, the fruit is generally mixed with milk and sugar to produce marmalades and preserves, and makes for a good batido (shake) if you you blend it up with coconut milk.  For more moribund purposes, it is used to embalm corpses in Atrato and San Juan, Colombia, and for budding casanovas, it has mythical aphrodisiacal properties.

In terms of health benefits, borojó contains a good deal of phosphorous – useful for your teeth, bones and much, much more – amino acids, protein, and vitamins C & B.

Want to try it?  It’s a cumbersome fruit, so I recommend you either visit South America, or try a bottle of this.


Have you heard of the borojó?

A Brief Food Tour of Mexico City, Part 1

As I mentioned in the latest post, Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the world.  And how might a city enter that hall of fame?

Having good food is a start.

I’d like to share with you a few highlights from a recent trip to the world’s largest Spanish-speaking city, in what I hope will become a series documenting Mexico’s variegated cuisines.

But before we dive in, we might want to consider…

La Vacuna Restaurant, Mexico City, Mexico

“The Vaccine.”  What an unusually timely name for a restaurant.  Though, I’d say for eating out on the town, washing up with soap with suffice.

OK, let’s start with two examples of comida callejera, or street food.

Street Food Vendor Preparing Chorizo Verde on a Comal (Flat Griddle)

Green chorizo, what?!  Yes, chorizo verde was something I only discovered at a brunch buffet two years ago in the Mexican capital.  Hailing from the city of Toluca in the state of Mexico (which surrounds Mexico City on three sides), chorizo verde consists of pork, and mix of herbs, spices, and chilies.  Standard chorizo – the reddish one given a smokiness by the cayenne pepper (pimentón)  – is quite filling, so the green version allows one to…eat even more.  That’s my experience, anyway!

Tacos de Chorizo Verde, Mexico City

Chorizo verde is not one of the more common street food options, but keep a look out for it if you want an herbal, slightly lighter take on its Iberian cousin.

Having consumed just two tacos for the day, I was still feeling peckish.  Enter, one of the best food stalls I’ve seen in Mexico City, nay anywhere, in the Colonia Juárez district.

It’s easy to get distracted by the deliciousness surrounding you in a place like Mexico, yet even in that lofty position, there exist stand-outs:

An Array of Meat and Salsa (and Guacamole), Mexico City, Mexico

On the comal – a flat griddle (historically made of clay) used for centuries in Mexico -these three chefs had chorizo, campechano (a mix of beef and pork of various cuts), suadero (fried beef), carnitas (shredded pork shoulder braised in its own fat), something akin to a burger, papas (potatoes), and nopales, or cactus.  What really sold me was the “fixins’ bar” of condiments– guajillo salsa, tomatillo salsa, beans, avocado tomatillo salsa, guacamole (!), pickled carrots, onions and cilantro, and a bevy of Veracruz limes.  Wow.

What did I order?

Two chorizo tacos with melted queso para asar (grilling cheese), potatoes, and onions, and a plate of the fun stuff.  Naturally, by the time I was finished chowing everything down, I had two more plates of salsa, and three more tacos.

Time for a drink break.

Namiola in Spanish, means wave.  It’s also the name of the first brand of sake produced on Mexican soil, in the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa.  Although the brewery, called Sakecul, produces three types of sake – junmai (純米 – pure rice without added alcohol/sugar), junmai ginjou (吟醸 – highly milled rice), and junmai daiginjou (大吟醸 – very highly milled rice, usually considered the top-tier of sake) – they also produce a beer called Haiku.  Nami was founded in September 2016, and can be found throughout major Mexican cities.

I sample the junmai and the daiginjou at Hiyoko, a modern yakitori restaurant in what has become the capital’s de facto Japanese barrio (neighborhood).

To top off my first review of Mexico City eats, I bring you la Señora Torres (named after the restaurant owner):

La Señora Torres, Mi Compa Chava, Mexico City, Mexico

Basically, I was searching in Spanish for popular restaurants in Mexico City, and came across Mi Compa Chava (My Pal Chava), a relative newcomer in the chic Roma Norte section of town.  It’s a seafood restaurant focusing on fresh catches from Sinaloa, the same state where the sake originated.

It’s also the home of that unbelieavable tower (torre coincidentally means “tower” in Spanish) of seafood, as shown above and below…

The edible skyscraper had layers of octopus, raw shrimp, cooked shrimp, cucumber, yellow fin tuna, red onion, avocado, and callo de hacha (scallops). Upon serving the tower, the waiter poured a blend of lime juice, charred tomatoes, Morita chilies, and a house salsa over it, returning the seafood back “to the sea.” Actually, that’s just my take on things.

The dish was a delight to conquer, and showed how fresh each ingredient could taste, in spite of being a couple of hours flight time from the Sinaloa port of Los Mochis (Mexico City is, after all the home of the largest seafood market in the country, and the largest wholesale food market in the world).


What’s that you say?  You want to see more of Mexican gastronomy?  Perhaps a churro, some tacos al pastor, or even a tour of the retail section of the wholesale food market?

I think that can be arranged.

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