Vuelva a la Vida (Mexico)

Ciudad del Carmen, in the Mexican state of Campeche, is not a star in Mexico’s tourism constellation.  It’s a petrol-oriented city on the Gulf of Mexico, hot year-round, and lacking in terms of attractions– its most-visited point of interest is Puente El Zacatal (The Zacatal/Pasture Bridge), the longest in the country.  Coincidentally, I had driven over this bridge in 2018, but didn’t stop to check out the city.

But, then you must remember, Ciudad del Carmen is still in Mexico, so the food’s probably good.  Considering that Campeche is the center of the shrimp industry on Mexico’s gulf coast, as long as you stick with seafood, you’re in good hands.

Shrimp Traffic Circle, Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico

Eager to try the local version of one of my favorite crustaceans, I randomly stopped for a bite at a restaurant called Coctelería Cajun, located right by El Zacatal Bridge.

Now, if you’re a fan of ceviche, you will find that the Mexican variety is quite different from the Peruvian.  In Mexico, ceviche and cóctel go hand-in-hand, offering up a mix of fish and seafood submerged in Clamato/tomato juice/ketchup and served in a glass or bowl.  Although I’m partial to the Peruvian exemplar, I’ve got a weakness for mariscos (seafood), so I had to try something.

That something became Vuelva a la Vida.

Meaning “return to life,” it is a popular hangover cure throughout Mexico.  Throw in a whole range of things from beyond the shore…think shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, and then on top of that, add in red onion and cilantro, and if you’re like me, some wildly spicy salsa.  Don’t fret, for the sweetness of the tomatoes in the liquid base will help soothe some of the spiciness.

Though I really don’t ever want ketchup unless it’s beside a french fry, I couldn’t resist the assortment of marine life swimming in the glass.

Next time, I will see if they can add crab to the motley crew.

Japanese Oumi Beef (近江牛): Kobe Beef’s Ancestor

You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef.  The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite.  That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead.  Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.

Sendai & Kobe Beef, New York Grill, Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef.  Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.

For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders.  Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.

To return to the topic, it is said that at the end of the Warring States period (~1467-1590), Takayama Ukon, an ally of Japan’s first unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, presented his victorious war chiefs in Hikone city, Omi province with cattle, thus originating the term Omi beef.

Omi Beef Set Meal, Hikone, Shiga, Japan (近江牛定食、彦根、滋賀県,日本)

Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished.  Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.

Coincidentally, when Omi beef was first exported, it shipped under the name “Kobe beef,” due to Kobe being the closest port at the time.  Only when Shiga’s Omi Hachiman train station opened in 1890 did exports that now shipped through Tokyo adopt the name “Omi beef.”

On May 11th, 2007, Omi beef was officially recognized with a seal of “Japan Geographical Indication.” by the Japan Patent Office.  Consequently, something can only be called Omi beef if it is raised in Shiga prefecture, by the shores of Lake Biwa.

Separate Checks: A Tale of Two Japans

When I was last in Japan a couple of years ago, I went with family to try the Kani Douraku (かに道楽) restaurant chain.  Kani Douraku (translated as “crab hobby”) is best known for having most dishes incorporating crab; also, when you walk in- at least to the one in Kyoto – there’s a stream with crabs puttering about.

One of many delicious courses at Kani Douraku, Kyoto, Japan

Although I thoroughly enjoyed just about every dish I tried, I couldn’t help but notice something (in Japanese) stand out on the bill:

The first line reads あかり男性.  The word あかり (akari) is harmless enough,  meaning “light” or “glow” and refers to the name of the set menu  The second, 男性 (dansei), however can be translated as “male,” or “man;” to breakdown the character for man, it represents power 力 lifting a rice paddy 田. For reference, the Japanese (and Chinese) character for woman is 女, and female 女性 (josei).

In Japan, I have seen set meals listed on menus specifically aimed at women, but in Kani Douraku’s case, this wasn’t made obvious on the menu.

Indeed, when the waitress took our order, she asked which of the three of us (two males, one female) would be eating the akari course.

Same price, of course, but presumably less food per course for women.

The Slinger (St. Louis, Missouri, USA)

Though I have only visited St. Louis a few times, I reckon it’s one of the underrated food destinations in the United States.  They’ve got delicious barbecue – and barbecue sauce, pork steaks (aka blade cuts), Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, gooey butter cake, toasted ravioli, and owing to the largest Bosnian population outside of that country, ćevapi (che-vapi, lamb sausage).

But there’s one local STL meal I only learned about this past weekend, the slinger.

The St. Louis Slinger, a Local Diner Specialty (taken at Courtesy Diner)

The slinger, likely created in a St. Louis diner in the 1970s, is a mountain of a meal.  A slinger – possibly named for a chef hastily “slinging” ingredients on the grill – normally has eggs any style, hash browns, chili, sausage or a hamburger, and raw onions.  With evolving taste buds, they now might include jalapenos (as mine did), cheese, a Mexican tamale, bacon, ham, and mustard, among other extras.

I tried a slinger at the Courtesy Diner, a small St. Louis-area chain, and felt that each aspect of the local dish balanced out every other.  After ordering one, I was remiss that I didn’t ask for cheese, but it turns out that cheese would have been that much more excessive.

YouTube: The Slinger.

Lablabi: Tunisian Chickpea Stew (لبلابي)

Monastir, Tunisia - Lablabli 1I was inadvertently introduced to lablabi (لبلابي) while walking around Monastir, Tunisia.  Some local market workers were taking their lunch break to crowd a small kiosk in the middle of a pedestrian block.  Nearly twenty more people got in their orders before I was noticed, even though I was perched in front of the chefs all along.  Now that I know the name of the snack, I greatly look forward to wildly mispronouncing lablabi.

Monastir, Tunisia - Lablabli 2Counting chickpeas as the base ingredient, garlic, cumin, and olive oil make up the rest of the vegetarian dish.  Piquant harissa – a North African hot sauce made with regional Baklouti peppers is often added on top, and stale bread is used to sop it all up.  Olives and pickles are staple accompaniments of this Maghrebi country.

Huitlacoche, the Caviar of Mexico

Welcome to the world of Mexican corn smut, better known as h(c)uitlacoche.

Cancun - Huitlacoche
Huitlacoche Tortilla, Cancun, Mexico

What is huitlacoche?

Also called corn mushroom, Aztec caviar or Mexican truffle, it’s a fungus that the Aztecs knew about; the name derives from the Náhuatl words cuitlatl, or droppings, and cochi, sleeping.  The corn kernels become entirely consumed by the fungal disease, swell, turn grayish and surprisingly, wind up in your street food; when the huitlacoche is still white, you can eat raw, but if it has already turned gray/black, it should be cooked. It doesn’t ordinarily devastate whole corn crops at one time, so a visit to a cornfield might take you a while to find husks that are infected.

In Mexico, huitlacoche is lauded for its nutrients – it is low in fat and high in fiber and antioxidants – and health benefits, but in the USA, you’re more likely to see it canned in Mexican supermarkets.

Credit: https://world.openfoodfacts.org/product/7501017004881/huitlacoche-la-costena

I first tried huitlacoche in Cancun, Mexico; the flavor was earthy and nutty, and even a bit salty, though that may have been due to the melted quesillo (Oaxaca cheese).  It is normally found at the height of the Mexican rainy season, in July and August, but given its popularity, some agronomists are experimenting with growing the Ustiligo maydis fungus year-round.

Chiayi’s Turkey Rice (Taiwan)

When I crave turkey, not many countries come to mind.  For sure, the US does, for its Thanksgiving meal.  Also, the Yucatán in Mexico, where it’s quite common to find guajolote (“turkey” in Mexican Spanish) on a menu. But, how about Taiwan?

Chiayi (Jiayi-嘉義) - Train Station A few years ago, while on my way to a friend’s wedding, I was visiting Chiayi, a small Taiwanese city sandwiched between Taichung and Tainan, in the central western part of Taiwan.  As far as Taiwanese cities go, it’s quite typical – you’ve got your mopeds and scooters, giant signs, and bustling food markets – but there is one particular food that stands out. Turkey rice, or 火雞飯 (火鸡饭).  Amusingly, turkey in Chinese translates as “fire chicken.”

Chiayi (Jiayi-嘉義) - Turkey Rice (鶏肉飯)

Although turkeys were introduced to present-day Taiwan by Dutch colonists in the 1600s, it was only in the 1950s that they really took off on Chiayi menus.  Apparently, some liaisons with the former Chiayi US air force base were longing for a taste of home, a longing which inspired local chefs to add it to bowls of rice. In Taiwan, I would generally make a beeline for oyster pancakes and pineapple cakes, but the turkey rice proved to be an amusing if unexpected find in the crowded field of Taiwanese specialties.

Kouji: The National Fungus of Japan

If you have ever traveled to East Asia, visited a Chinatown, or studied Chinese and/or Japanese, you likely have come across the character 酒.  In Chinese, it is pronounced jiǔ, and in Japanese, generally it is さけ (sake) or しゅ (shu).  The character originally referred to wine, but now encompasses all liquor.  Harking back to when pubs doubled as places to spend the night, in China, 酒店 –  jiǔ​diàn –  means “hotel,” although it literally means “liquor store.”

Referring to the above photo, 甘酒, or amazake, can be translated as sweet liquor, or sweet sake.  Yet, written right below that word in the picture is the phrase ノンアルコール, meaning non-alcoholic.  How can that be?

A bit of backstory: the full name of the drink is 米麹甘酒 (こめこうじあまざけ) komekouji amazake, or malted rice sweet sake.  The key element of the name is the character 麹, aka 糀, which is koji/kouji, a fungus primarily used to ferment soybeans, in addition to aiding in the creation of rice vinegar and alcoholic beverages.

Kouji was first discovered in China more than 2, 300 years ago., and introduced to Japan around 300 A.D.  To create kouji, spores of a fermentation culture, called Aspergillus oryzae, are injected into rice that has been steamed and then cooled. After a couple of days of being stored in a warm place, as A. oryzae begins to break down the proteins and carbohydrates of the rice, the fungus begins to form.  Finally, the kouji is separated from the decomposition, ready for their task in preparing our favorite soy sauces, mirin, and liquor, among other products.

Indeed, it is the fermentation process that explains why the amazake drink isn’t mislabeled, and why kouji has become Japan’s 国菌 (こっきん) kokkin, or national fungus.


Among these two titans of international cuisine, it’s always fascinating to learn about the humble ingredients quietly playing their parts behind the scenes.

FoodTrex Spain Presents The 4th International Congress of Gastronomy Tourism, Pamplona, May 27th-28th

This Thursday and Friday, the World Food Travel Association, in association with Navartur, is holding its FoodTrex Spain event, also known as the International Congress of Gastronomy Tourism.  Normally, Navartur would be hosting a larger event focused broadly on tourism; however, due to COVID-19 this was postponed until next year.

The 4th Annual International Congress of Gastronomy Tourism will focus primarily on workshops in which exhibitors and patrons learn about how to reignite culinary tourism in the wake of a pandemic.

For background, the World Food Travel Association is a 20-year old non-profit organization that promotes hospitality and tourism through local cuisine, and Navartur is a Pamplona-based tourism group focusing on Navarra and the Basque country, located in the central northern portion of Spain.  Furthermore, with its idyllic beaches, cuisine, landscapes, and ancient history, Spain is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, not to mention the headquarters of the World Tourism Organization.

In addition to in-person conferences and B2B sessions, as the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much a concern, event organizers have decided to also add a virtual session for attendees unable to travel to Spain for the two-day summit.

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