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Costa Rica (Day 4)- Willy Wonka In the Jungle and Dining In a Drug Port

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It is almost the new year, and that means that I got to squeeze in these last few Costa Rica posts before starting anew in 2015 (fingers crossed).  What does the future hold for Mastication Monologues?  The sky is the limit I think if I keep up the great material, and all you readers out there keep on enjoying my posts.  Plus, I just got picked up to write for Localeur, named by Forbes as one of the top travel apps of 2015, so things are already turning up Milhouse.  More to come on that.  Anyway, today’s entry is going to be quite the sweet treat that began over breakfast back in San Jose.  If you want to read from the beginning of our vacation, click here.

Day 4 in Costa Rica started with a fresh breakfast of delicious mangos that were served up in an exquisite manner by Janice. IMG_5202 We had bought them a day earlier at a roadside fruit stand that went beyond apples and oranges.  After taking a bite, I became ravenous and destroyed the rest of the super sweet and satisfying pulp.  Having all of this fresh fruit around was yet another reason we came to love Costa Rica.  We met up with our group and proceeded northeast from San Jose toward Braulio Carillo National Park.  Before we got there, we had a rest stop at a roadside restaurant and gas station.  We were still hungry after our mango breakfast, so Janice and I got empanadas to go.  It was the perfect mini meal.  They were fried and greasy which I loved, and they were stuffed with a ton of ingredients. IMG_5206 Janice’s had a lot of smooth but not very bold cheese, but mine was a whole lot better.  IMG_5208It was filled with gallo pinto which we first had on day two before our Pacific cruise and chicharrones or fried pork skins. IMG_5209 It was best breakfast for on-the-go Ticos (“Costa Ricans” in the local dialect) which combined semi-savory rice, hearty beans, and crunchy yet chewy pieces of pork.  When we finally arrived at the national park, we started on the trail toward the chocolate presentation the forest rangers had prepared for us.  At one point in time, we passed over a huge river while being hooted at by a family of howler monkeys.  The jungle was getting more and more humid as the drizzle came down around us like a wet blanket. We eventually reached the theobroma, the variety of chocolate grown there (“food of the gods” in Greek), trail that led to the presentation pavilion.IMG_4072IMG_4080  Being a chocolate lover, I was greatly intrigued being in the heartland of where one of my favorite types of candy originated.  We started with an introduction to the cacao pods that grow in the jungle, and the white seeds that can be found in the fruits. IMG_4125IMG_4081 Our guide gave out free seed samples to eat, and the key was to suck on them until the white pulp melted away.IMG_4083IMG_4085  It tasted like lychees actually, but then the seeds were needed for the next step in the chocolate making process.  IMG_4086We learned that the early Mesoamericans ate and spit out these seeds throughout Latin America while migrating since it gave them energy for the long hikes.  These migrations combined with seed spitting led to the spread of cacao plants both north and south of Costa Rica.  After handing our slobber-coated seeds back to our guide, he showed us the second step in chocolate production:  fermentation.IMG_4088  These seeds are placed in a large box with micro-organisms that eventually results in a completely pure bean consisting of cacao solids and cocoa butter. IMG_4090 We could taste the beans, and it could be likened to a 80% cacao dark chocolate bar.IMG_4097IMG_4098IMG_4094  The next step in the process took a turn for the historical.  The presenters took out a large volcanic stone basin known as a metate and a super hot stone called a metlapil, both Nahuatl words for the Mayan tools used in chocolate grinding.  As one of the guides got down to business, he offered us the chance to try our hands at making coarse cocoa powder.  I went first, and I couldn’t believe how stoic the guide was when he was using the metlapil.  I could only hold it for two seconds at a time tops it was so hot.  Janice tried it too, but she was smart and used her long sleeps as oven mitts. IMG_4101IMG_4102 After a couple more minutes of playing Mayan hot potato, a semi-fine cocoa powder resided in the metate.  However, our main guide informed us that when Spanish nuns arrived after the Conquistadores, they realized they could make this bitter Mayan treat a lot more palatable for Spanish tastes by adding sugar and cinnamon to the mix.  IMG_4105We also got a chance to try a European grinder that was a lot more labor intensive, but you weren’t burning your fingerprints off in the process.IMG_4107IMG_4109  Once finished, we took the very fine powder and mixed it with hot water to make one of the most sacred drinks of the Maya. IMG_4113 It was only served to the upper classes, priests, and kings.  The Mayan chocolate drink was then made to be frothy by pouring it back and forth between cups to get the ideal espuma or foam on top.  You can see a Mayan illustration of the process behind our guide in the picture below.  IMG_4116 However, the Spaniards disliked this drink, known in Nahuatl as cacagua, because it was bitter and literally means “poo water” in Spanish (caca + agua), and probably tasted like it to them before the addition of sugar and cinnamon.  We also saw how the Spaniards made the drink frothy by using what looked like a 16th Century egg beater. IMG_4117 Then, in true Maya fashion, we were allowed to put in some classic additives the chocolate producers would introduce to their varieties to make them more popular.  In this instance we had corn starch, ground pepper, chile, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Right to left:  corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Right to left: corn starch, chile, ground pepper, cinnamon

Too bad they didn’t allow us to mix in some tobacco and smoke it as the Maya once did.  Instead of scorching my lungs, I went for a literal hot chocolate with a lot of chile, some ground pepper, a dash of vanilla extract, and some corn starch to thicken the drink.  It was plenty spicy, but I didn’t note any thickening of the watery mixture. IMG_4123 The chocolate was sublime as we sipped to the sound of the gently falling rain and the rustling of agoutis in the underbrush and calls of exotic birds in the distance.  After that, we heard that the chocolate powder to make chocolate bars is first pressed to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao solids.  This is where our guide dropped a huge bomb on us:  white chocolate is not chocolate!!  What it actually is is a bar of cocoa butter, sugar, and condensed milk.  Basically it’s eating a bar of fat with no chocolate involved.  After pressing, the cacao solids are then melted in a kiln and the result is liquid deliciousness.IMG_4124  We got to eat spoonfuls of the milk chocolate goop along with two fresh chocolate shapes. IMG_4126IMG_4129 IMG_4130 To end the demonstration, we got a bag of cocoa beans that we could cook at home or exchange for post cards.  IMG_4131Like Gollum, I kept my precious to eat at home.  On our walk back through the forest we saw real cocoa pods on the trees that were infected with a fungus that shut down the chocolate plantation that used to be in that very same jungle.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

Red cocoa pods infected with black fungus.

This fungus devastated the chocolate industry in Costa Rica, and that’s why the biggest chocolate producers are in West Africa now.  We went back to the entrance for lunch which was another buffet with rice and beans, but there were also three new items on the menu:  heart of palm, fried yuca, and chayote. IMG_4135 The heart of palm is a vegetable that literally comes from within certain palm trees, and I could liken it to a non-offensive artichoke.  The fried yuca literally tasted like deep fried potato slices, and the chayote tasted like squash.

Heart of palm and chayote

Heart of palm and chayote

For dessert, there was flan that was not too runny that I really enjoyed especially with the drizzle of super sweet caramel on top.IMG_4139  Once we finished our tour in the national park, our bus driver took us back to the roadside restaurant and gas station where we got our empanadas in the morning.  Janice and I broke off from the group with our new driver, Rigoberto, to go to the Caribbean coast since we were going to see the Sloth Sanctuary the next day.  After a long drive and night had fallen, our cordial driver stopped in the port city of Limón.  Our condo owner, Mark, warned us of drug trafficking and violence in the town, and it fit the bill.  Large groups of shady guys hanging out on street corners.  Prostitutes chilling outside truck depots.  Kids lighting off firecrackers in huge groups of people that could have been mistaken for gunshots.  Rigoberto, a native Costa Rican, looked super wary as we parked the car outside a typical Costa Rican greasy spoon diner or a “soda” in Costa Rican Spanish called Happy Landing.  He made sure we left nothing in the car, and looking at our surroundings I could see why when he said many people don’t like to come to this area.  We walked in, and the place could have used new lights and a new coat of paint.  IMG_5221 IMG_5220We looked at the menu, and it was all Chinese food!  Classic Costa Rican cuisine haha.  I decided to get the chow mein, and Janice just got fried chicken.  While we were waiting, Rigoberto got randomly pulled into a convo with a guy who had at least ten empty beer bottles in front of him on the table (see pic above; drunky is in plaid).  Eventually, my food came out, and it was the most ridiculous Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten some interesting things in China. IMG_5223 IMG_5224 They fried the noodles, and put them on the side like a bread basket or something like that.  The ingredients were all mushed together and not very flavorful.  Janice’s fried chicken came out way later than my plate or Rigoberto’s for some reason, but this diner was not worth stopping for.  We safely made our way out of the drug port and deeper into the dark jungle to find our hotel.  Rigoberto hadn’t been to the coast since 1986, so he was as lost as we were.  Google Maps to the rescue!  We eventually had to traverse a dirt and gravel path in the jungle to get to our destination, Kenaki Lodge, that was across from the beach.  The gates opened, and we were greeted by a French woman and her poochy parade.IMG_5228  We quickly became friends with them, including my best bud the Great Dane. IMG_5227 It was a long day of adventures and food sampling that left us looking forward to the day to come as we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach.

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Throwback Post: Chocolatería San Ginés in Madrid

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Bienvenidos y welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If you’re reading this, you’ve finally reached the end of my throwback Europe series.  We’re touching down in the heart of the Iberian peninsula in the ageless city of Madrid.

Home to the Spanish government and monarchy, Madrid is the imposing and more regal version of Spain’s more laid back second city, Barcelona.  Everywhere my friend Kevin and I turned, we were confronted with another piece of history.  Royal palace?  Check.1930504_1100433668123_5085_n  El Prado Art Museum?  Check.  El Parque de Buen Retiro?  Double check. 10400831_1100124860403_5015_n 10400831_1100124220387_9578_n 10400831_1100124380391_983_nI especially enjoyed the park because it offered a bit of relaxation in a city that is mostly business-minded.  Not only are there plenty of open lawns and large trees, but the main fountain in the middle of the park was the best because you can rent rowboats for an hourly fee.  It was nice to just sit on a bench and take in the more leisurely pace of life in Spain where families were out on paseos (after meal walks) and the old timers were arguing about the superiority of Los Colchoneros vs Los Merengues over some coffee.  One of the best places outside of the city that I’d recommend visiting is El Escorial. n1145100159_31215923_1194 It was commissioned by Felipe II to be a royal palace and a symbol of Catholic strength in the face of the rising wave of Protestantism.  The palace’s design is particularly interesting  since it was designed with a grid floor plan to pay homage to the red hot griddle that Saint Lawrence was burned to death on.  From the halls gilded with gold mined from New World mines to the exquisitely carved statues in the Court of Kings, it was a royal palace without equal.n1145100159_31215937_5529  While I did try some delicious tapas throughout my stay in the city, the star of the food show took the form of churros at Chocolatería San Ginés located at Pasadizo de San Gines, 5, 28013, Madrid.san-gines chocolateria-san-gines-_328091 What are churros?  Churros are basically pieces of fried dough that are often long and thin.  From there, chefs have given their own twist on them which have included:  plain, coated with cinnamon-sugar, coated in chocolate, coated in chocolate and filled with caramel, or coated in chocolate and filled with custard.  At Chocolatería San Ginés the churros are served plain with a cup of chocolate on the side for dipping. Chocolate_con_churros_-_San_Ginés_-_Madrid This churro shop has been open since 1894, and it has been a favorite hangout for night owls and club goers who want something sweet and greasy to fill them up before going home.  I just stumbled upon it through pure chance during a normal night after dinner, and I never forgot the first time I bit into one of the golden wands of magical fried dough.  They were substantial, light, and fresh out of the fryer.  I could have eaten them without the chocolate due to their subtle buttery base common to many fried dough treats, but the warm melted milk chocolate took this dessert to another level.  I was communing with San Lorenzo, San Gines, and the rest of the culinary saints by the end of the heavenly plate.  It was a perfect end to my visit to the Spanish capital, and a heavenly denouement to this throwback series.10400831_1100123420367_3194_n  I hope you enjoyed reading this European adventure as much as I had writing it.

Beijing (Day 3 and 4)- I Got a Black Magic Chicken

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For those who get the Santana reference in the title, you’re welcome.  To the rest of y’all, get ready for some more funky food that Beijing has to offer along with a couple normal plates for those who are a bit averse to the adventurous eating route I normally take.  First, there are the somewhat odd platters I sampled for a late lunch after returning from North Korea.  I was feeling full of life after a near brush with the North Korean authorities, so I felt like going for the gusto with my food and beverage choices.  First, I noticed that other people were drinking large carafes of a steaming white liquid, so I got one of those on the side to then accompany my black chicken and stuffed lotus root with sweet rice.  The random drink came out first along with a plate of sugar.IMG_1696  I first sampled the libation without the sugar, and it turned out to be very fresh soy milk with no sweetener.  Good think they gave me the sugar because there was no way I was going to drink all of it without a little some-something to boost the old flavor profile.  After a couple lumps, the milk tasted like a soy milk that is commercially sold in the USA with a bit more of a grassy taste to it.  Eventually, my black chicken and lotus root came out.IMG_1698  The biggest surprise for me that came with both of these dishes was the fact that they were both served cold.  Now, I don’t know if that’s how they’re traditionally served or if it was going in line with the Chinese medicinal concept that can be likened to the Western 4 humors concept in early medicine.  It is the same in Korea where many people believe that in order to keep your personal energy in line with the weather, you have to eat hot food when it hot outside and cold food for colder climes.  Doesn’t make sense to Western logic where one would imagine to eat warm food while it’s cold and cold food to cool off in the heat, but I’m not here to discuss medicine.  Food time.  So, first there was the black chicken.  When I say black chicken, I don’t mean it’s just blackened from a seasoning or charring.  The entire chicken, from its skin to its bones, is completely black compliments of selective breeding back in Ancient China.IMG_1699  They’re called Silkies, and Marco Polo even mentions the very same “furry chickens” in his travelogues.  Therefore, it was going back in a culinary time machine where I consumed a piece of the past, and it tasted like a heap of coriander with a hint of Sichuan pepper that numbed my tongue ever so slightly.  The downside of the preparation, as with many places in Asia, it was filled with tiny bones which took away from me actually enjoying what little meat there was on the beast.  However, I did enjoy it a lot more than my lotus root dish which also was served at room temperature.  Now, I love my fried lotus root, but this raw version did not sit well with me because of the limp texture and the odd, sweet ketchup-esque sauce. IMG_1697 It wasn’t a highlight on my visit to Beijing.  However, the following day was great in so many ways.  First, there was my visit to the breathtaking Great Wall of China at the Mutianyu section that was occasionally blighted by hawkers trying to sell you food, drinks, and terrible souvenirs.  This wasn’t even at the most touristy part of the wall!  After hiking for about three hours up and down some knee-crackingly high stairs, I zoomed down the mountain on a self-regulated toboggan which was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done in my life.  The lunch we had at the foot of the mountain really wasn’t anything of note, but the dinner I had after going to the national circus was noteworthy with how cheap and flavorful it was.  While I was trying to find a place open in my neighborhood by my hostel on a Sunday night, which was proving a bit harder to do than I thought, I stumbled on this 24 hour eatery (or at least that’s what I figured from the 24 on the sign).IMG_1713  I walked in much to the surprise of the staff, but I was quickly seated and supplied with a huge menu.  I’ve noticed all the menus in China have 10 billion things on them which is refreshing compared to Korea, yet so intimidating at the same time.  All I have to say is thank God for picture menus.  I ended up getting the pork stuffed green scallion pancakes along with the cumin seared beef.  For the equivalent of 10 bucks, I got a huge skillet of quality cuts of beef rubbed with a great chili and cumin rub all topped off with a huge mountain of cilantro. IMG_1709 The side of fried pancake was wonderful as well.IMG_1711  It was a bit greasy but not too much, and the minced pork mixed with the tangy green onions and pliable, golden brown dough was a combo made in heaven. IMG_1712 So those are some more notable eats I have sampled during my trip to Beijing, and I will be wrapping it up in the next post with my final day in the Chinese capital.  Until then, readers and eaters!

An Elephant Never Forgets 100 Posts

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Hey y’all!  So this is another installment of Mastication Monologues from my recent vacation for the Korean Thanksgiving holiday.  Actually, now that I think about it, this is my 100th post!  I never thought I would keep up with my blog for this long, and I would be trying so many different types of food and sharing my findings with the world.  Thanks for all of your support!!  Yet I regret having not started it earlier to record some great restaurants I visited in Europe whose names escape me now.  Alas, the show must go on, and this will be epic!  So that brings me to today’s post where I traveled to the island of Macau.

Before I left, my friends told me to read up on the Vietnam visa on arrival program and to consider a work visit, I considered it for a long time before I decided to keep with my initial plans. I started my day again at a cha chaan teng where I had a Hong Kong breakfast of oats with milk and crispy buns with sweetened condensed milk.   If you don’t know what a cha chaan teng is, check out my last post.

Hong Kong's odd couple

Hong Kong’s odd couple

The oats were unfortunately more milk than oats, so I jazzed up the bland concoction with some sugar that was on the side.  As for my crispy buns with sweetened condensed milk, I should have just gotten two orders of these toasted nuggets of heaven.  Not only were they crunchy yet soft, but the salty butter mixed with the extremely sweet condensed milk definitely beat any doughnut I’ve probably ever had.  They were that good.  Once I downed that satisfying meal, I was ready to catch my boat to Macau.

I was originally drawn to Macau ever since my mom told me about her exhilarating ride on the hydrofoil, and how the island was a mix of both Portuguese and Chinese cultures.  So, I was determined to see this cosmopolitan island for myself while vacationing in Hong Kong.  Naturally, the food was another driving factor for me to go the extra mile and see the island.  I’ve always loved Portuguese and Brazilian culture whether that be Fado vs. a birimbao for a capoeira  roda or some Nando’s spicy piri piri chicken vs. some pao de queijo and brigadeiro.  One of the first noms that I sought out were the pasteis de nata or more commonly known as egg custard tarts.  I really wanted to try them in Macau because I had some in the Santa Maria de Belem neighborhood of Lisbon.

The original bakery.

The monastery next to the original bakery in Lisbon.

I bought them at the first bakery (Casa de Pasteis de Belem) that began mass producing these egg desserts in 1837 when the original producers, the Jeronimos monks, were driven out by the Liberal Revolution of the 1820s.

Ain't nothing like the real thing.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing.

They were amazing there with a little powdered sugar and cinnamon on top, so I was gunning to see if they were worth the boat ride.

I was a fatty even five years ago.

I was a fatty even five years ago.

In Macau, I ended up going to Margaret’s Cafe e Nata which is located at Gum Loi Building, Rua Alm Costa Cabral R/C Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, Macau.IMG_0777  I saw there was a line, and a woman was directing the traffic for what seemed to be a sandwich line and a pastry line.IMG_0776  She looked at me, and I asked for “pasteis de nata“.  She looked at me like I was an alien.  I said it again, and she said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, egg tarts” and then led me to the line on the left.  I thought she was just an oddball who didn’t speak Portuguese, but I told the woman behind the register, “Quero seis pasteis de nata, por favor“.  She was less incredulous, but still had trouble understanding.  I held up six fingers, and she rung me up.  Then when she gave me change, she said “obrigado” which only men should say.  I guess Wikitravel really was right when it said people don’t really speak Portuguese in Macau even though everything is written in it…so strange.IMG_0779  Anyway, I quickly opened the box to find six golden mini-pies that would eventually fuel my intense day of hiking and sightseeing.IMG_0780  The first bite revealed a crispy top with a smooth, vanilla taste accompanied with a slightly gooey egg interior and an extremely flaky yet sweet pastry crust.  Overall, they were pretty good, but they were a bit too gelatinous for my liking.  The originals in Lisbon were better since the egg custard was a lot creamier and didn’t feel like you were eating a sweet omelet.  While walking to the Sao Paulo Cathedral, I also have to mention the free beef jerky samples I got in the street.

A real meat market

A real meat market

These stalls are mainly by the cathedral.  I tried the spicy and honey bbq flavors, and it’s different than jerky back in the States.  The Maccanese version was flavorful and surprisingly moist like it was just cut off the cured hog.

After running all over Macau and hiking up a mountain to see a temple, I decided I needed to go to Rua da Cunha on Cotai Island.  IMG_2475This street is known for its Portuguese bakeries and restaurants, so I decided to go to Restaurante Dumbo.IMG_0786  It’s very well furnished inside, and the prices are a bit more expensive compared to Hong Kong restaurants. IMG_0783 I ended up getting a quarter of gallina a la portuguesa which arrived in a small pot at my table. IMG_0784 It was delicious as the top was crusted over with cheese, and then beneath the surface lurked large chunks of chicken along with potatoes, black olives, and carrots.  It was a hearty dish that obviously came from humble origins with the ingredients. IMG_0785 I would highly recommend this place to anyone who wants to try Maccanese cooking.  Then I got serradura for dessert.  Serradura means “sawdust” in Portuguese, and it probably was pretty apt since the crushed cookies on top looked literally like it should be on a steakhouse floor.IMG_2478  However, the taste was phenomenal.  It was like a rich vanilla ice cream cup covered with cookie crumbs.  It was a good end to my visit to Macau.

IMG_0798

Hey girl, can I take you home?

At the end of the night back in Hong Kong, a couple of the guys and I went out in the Wanchai neighborhood and found Big Pizza located at 89 Lockhart road.  I ended up getting a piece since what goes better with beer than pizza?  I opted for the chicken tikka pizza, and it was a slice as big as my head for only 20 HK.  Needless to say, the pizza was just what the doctor ordered.  The chicken was tender and had the proper Indian spices while the crust was firm, slightly chewy, and baked to a golden-brown.  A great way to end a great night.

Next up, my last night in Hong Kong with sum dim sum action.

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