Tag Archives: Travel

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Puerto Rico: Part I

Puerto-Rico_anita

My good friend is leaving for Puerto Rico today, so to follow through on a last minute promise, here is my version of what’s good in Puerto Rico–to eat, see, and enjoy–based on the three months I lived there in 2007. The first installment is about an area of San Juan I frequented regularly:

Santurce

On Thursday and Friday nights, the bars surrounding this market plaza are so packed with locals that the crowds spill out into the street, where they dance to live music, gather around tables with beers and fried seafood, and socialize beneath the large trees that line the plaza. I was there about twice a week, but it was usually at midday, instead of midnight.

This is because the Placita de Santurce is also home to a farmer’s market where you can find the best fresh fruits and veggies in the city. Inside the plaza’s turn-of-the-century structure, you can find everything from red bananas to yellow avocados. One vendor sells exotic herbs like yerbabuena, wild tarragon, and Puerto Rican lemongrass—all especially good for flavoring cocktails like mojitos.

A selection of fruits fresh from the market: guamas de la india, platanos, papaya, bananas and pinapple

My favorites from the Placita: guamas de la india, platanos, papaya, bananas and pineapple.

Another yummy add-in for mojitos is my favorite Puerto Rican fruit: guama de la India. Native guamas grow on trees, inside large green pods that look like giant peas. But in the summer, they are out of season, so, to keep up with year-round demand, another kind of guama tree was imported from India. Its fruit looks like an orange teardrop with tender white flesh inside—and the taste is like nothing else. It has the fresh, pine-y taste of juniper berry, the tartness of lychee, and the sweetness of Muscat grapes. You can’t go to PR without trying one…or twenty.

The Ramirez family sells guamas at their large stand in the center of the market. They also sell rum bottles full of homemade aji (spicy pepper sauce), which make for great souvenirs. Continue reading

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Fish Head Curry

fish-head-curry-feast

The best curry I ever had was made of fish heads. It was with Jean, two years ago, at the Banana Leaf in the Little India section of Singapore. I liked this place a lot. For one thing, we ate off of banana leaves instead of plates. And instead of utensils, we followed local custom and used our hands to eat.

We started off messy, but then copied a group of businessmen seated nearby, using our fingers to roll compact balls of curry-sopped rice. I felt like a child learning to use a fork for the first time, and that was big fun.

fish-head-curry

Notice, in the above picture, the small pile of bones on the corner of Jean’s leaf. In the USA, fish heads are what we throw away. But they are so meaty! I heard somewhere that the most tender flesh in the fish is at the back of the “scull,” and it is true. Like soup cooked with bone-in, skin-on, fatty chicken vs. soup cooked with cubes of white breast meat, fish head curry is ten times more flavorful than any other fish I’ve ever tried.

I lived around cities my whole life, where food came from the supermarket, from restaurants, or machines. We had an aversion to the whole animal approach to food. Gizzards, eyeballs, bones and blood were considered “dirty” food. We only used the breast of the chicken, the filet of the fish, and the ‘mignon’ of beef: the cutest cuts for the most proper presentation.

But now, with the whole “snout to tail” (or is it tail to snout?) philosophy gaining popularity, we are reaching back into the theoretical garbage can to reclaim lost treasures. Marrow bones have become a menu must. A new cookbook features bacon fat cookies. Headcheese is on the rise. On my first day at a new job, the chef made summer rolls with leftover crispy duck skin…they were to die for.

So, city or country; trend or tradition; Stateside or Singapore; have your fish– and eat it, too.

flower-water

L.A. Cheese-Fry Bye-Bye

Street snacks, Venice Beach style.

Street snacks, Venice Beach style.

Luxurious sashimi sandwich served by a real live french maid at Royal-T.

Luxurious sashimi sandwich served by a real live french maid at Royal-T.

BEST. BURRITO. EVER. (And vegan!)

BEST. BURRITO. EVER. (And vegan!)

The cake that matched my bridesmaid dress also matched my appetite.

The cake that matched my bridesmaid dress was no match for my appetite.

Kamila, bite that thing before it bites you!

Kamila, bite that thing before it bites you.

They just don't make 'em like that in NYC, huh?

Good.

Diddy Riese ice cream sangwich, attacked by cousins.

Diddy Riese ice cream sangwich, attacked.

Animal Fries.

The grand finale: Animal Fries.

Early this month July, my sister Marie got married in Los Angeles. Days later, she packed up her apartment, her new PhD, and her hombre, and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah. This saddened me, as my regular visits to LA had evolved into a food pilgrimage of sorts, with each visit yielding more and more daydream-worthy discoveries.

The only local food I’d heard reports of from Salty Lake was something called “funeral potatoes.” Eeep.

So, as you can see, I made the most of my ‘last’ visit to L.A. – and approached it with full gastronomic abandon. Continue reading