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Our next stop found us crossing from Basilicata into Puglia (the heel of Italy's boot) and the sleepy and charming Valley of Itria. The most famous thing about this region is probably its trulli, traditional conical dwellings. We picked out a comfortable bed and breakfast where we could stay in one of these unusual buildings (and the hammock and pool were nice bonuses) and spent our days journeying around the small hamlets in the region.
Each town felt similar: the whitewashed buildings, the blooming flowers in window boxes, the cafes with tables spilling out onto the public square. And yet each had a slightly different vibe: different topography, its own culinary specialties, and a different view over the countryside dotted with olive trees as far as the eye can see. Puglia is where the majority of Italy's wine and olive oil is produced, and while the interior of the region is mostly dry and flat and agricultural, it also boasts tons of beaches and coastal towns that in some ways are more reminiscent of Greece than Italy.
We had heard great things about Puglia -- it is even referred to as "the next Tuscany" (i.e., get there while you can!) -- and we both found it to be lovely and unassuming in its offerings. It didn't try to be anything it's not, and while Puglia has lots to offer, it hasn't let its appeal get to its head; it's still welcoming without begging for your tourism. It felt more real to me than many parts of the popular Tuscan countryside; sure, tourists have been visiting for decades, it's not some kind of well-kept secret that backpackers just discovered or anything, but it didn't seem like Puglia had inconvenienced itself or undergone any major transformations just because people are increasingly discovering what's on offer. Would you like to taste some of the local wine? Great, come on over, but we're not going to pour you a fancy flight and give you a cheese & meat board to go along with it; in fact, we'd prefer if you just bought a plastic jug of it and enjoyed it at your leisure!
This region also contained the culinary (and perhaps overall) high-point of the trip, an eight-course dinner at Masseria Il Frantoio. Upon driving up the estate's gravel driveway, we felt like we were traveling back in time (our first hint may have been the ancient Fiat parked outside the gate). Before dinner, the owner led us on a short tour of the property, telling us about the dozens of different strains of heirloom olives they grow -- each one produces a unique olive oil which brings a unique flavor to the dish it's used in -- the 24 herbs they grow in the herb garden, and the Arabian garden growing oranges and even bananas. His speech was quite boastful, but anyone in his position and with his lifestyle would be proud. We got a clear sense of the region's and the property's history, and he seemed eminently aware of his place in the world.
After the tour, we were seated for dinner, and as Luciano and his family brought out course after course of simple, fresh, and delicious food, we were awakened again and again to "how food is supposed to taste". We always have this feeling many times in Italy; maybe it's the pace of life, the agriculture methods, or something in the air, but so much Italian produce is so bright, flavorful, and always served at the peak of ripeness that the corresponding food we get here in the U.S. often pales in comparison. Italian cooking is very simple; most dishes have only a handful of ingredients, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, you don't need to do a lot to them.
Our bellies full and our bodies rested, we headed a few hours north to Trani, a charming port town on the Adriatic that doesn't attract many tourists. Indeed, the thing that brought us there was not the restaurants, sights, or the beach, but the fact that my grandfather was born there. You'll have to wait, because this story will be told in the next post.
The last stop (after Trani) on our all-too-quick tour of Puglia was the Gargano peninsula, where we rented the last apartment on an outcrop of land over the Adriatic Sea. The Gargano Peninsula juts out like a spur on the boot of Italy, and feels more like an island than a peninsula. It boasts a dramatic coastline and the interior contains the only remaining part of an ancient forest, the hilly Foresta Umbra. We woke each morning to have coffee on our small patio with commanding views of the sea, then packed the rental car to explore just a few of the peninsula's many beaches. Although it was a bit windy and not quite high-season, we were shocked to find a beautiful and rugged beach completely to ourselves. We spent all morning in the little cove pictured below with only seagulls for neighbors. We laughed at how many people would be crammed into this beach if it were on the Amalfi coast.
One day after working up an appetite sitting on the beach, we walked a few minutes up the coast to have lunch at a trabucco, a style of seafood restaurant completely unique to this region. My understanding of the fishing method is that every night they just drop a huge net off a corner of the structure with a few long poles leaning out over the water, then in the morning the pull the ropes at the end of the poles to haul in the day's catch without ever leaving land or casting a line! The informal atmosphere reminded us of lobster shacks in Maine or crab dives in Maryland. The fish was juicy and fresh as can be, accented with a simple tomato salad and even a delicious pale ale--Italy's craft beer industry has made great strides in the last few years!
The main town in the Gargano Peninsula is Vieste, which we spent a couple hours exploring one afternoon. It is famous for its dramatic white monolith, Pizzomunno, jutting up from the town's beach about 80 feet high.
We loved the beautiful coastline, plethora of beaches, and windy coastal roads and wish we had had a bit longer to journey into the peninsula's mountainous center. At least we've left something to explore for the next time!
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Eating gelato at least once a day while in Italy is completely unavoidable. I am willing to risk not fitting into any of my clothes at the end of my trips there if it means I can stop for ice cream about as many times a day as I refill my water bottle. Gelaterias are almost on every block in most Italian cities, so really, self-restraint has no chance of prevailing here.
The thing about Italian gelato that some people don't like is its "lack" of texture. Most of the flavors are really smooth and creamy; you won't find chocolate-covered pretzels, miniature cinnamon buns, or chunks of raw cookie dough here. And while most gelaterias have a few dozen flavors, I've always been a big fan of the classics like nocciola (hazelnut) or dark chocolate. However, not being one to discriminate when it comes to desserts, I'm also a sucker for trying flavors that I know I will probably not find anywhere else. Some of my favorite finds were caramelized fig (at Giolitti in Rome), hazelnut meringue, ginger + cinnamon (both at San Crispino in Rome), spicy chocolate (at Vestri in Florence), ricotta + pear, and gorgonzola + nuts (both at Gelateria dei Neri in Florence). I'll be back for the remaining 856 flavors that I didn't get to this time, lactose intolerance be damned!
Oh boy, where do I begin? Northern Vietnam had hands down my favorite cuisine of the 20+ countries we visited over the past year (note: I do not feel it would be fair to include Italy in the running for this title). While we've loved a lot of the Southeast Asian foods we've sampled, Vietnam's was so consistently delicious that all we really wanted to do while we were there was eat. And then eat some more. In fact, on our last full day in Hanoi we had a meal on the way from breakfast to lunch, just so that we could fit in all the food we wanted to try before we left. Most street food vendors in Hanoi are one-dish wonders, meaning that the stand (or hole-in-the-wall restaurant) only serves one thing, and they do it well. The ingredients -- whether it be noodles, veggies, or meat-- are fresh, often cooked before your eyes, many dishes are served with piles of fresh herbs, and most dishes have a great balance between salty, sweet, and sour. Textures were widely varied as well. And the best part? It's not heavy like many other Asian foods can be. So, sit back, grab a snack if you're already hungry, and read on. We've described some of our favorites here and included the name and/or address where we ate them in case you ever find yourself in Hanoi (pro tip: pack fat pants).
This might have been my favorite: grilled pork patties and slices of pork belly in a bowl of smoky, slightly sour broth that surely took hours to simmer to perfection, served with a pile of vermicelli noodles (conveniently cut for you at your table with a pair of scissors), a larger pile of fresh herbs such as basil and mint, chopped garlic and chilies, and crab spring rolls (we weren't sure if we should dip these in the soup or eat them separately, so we did both). Add the ingredients as you make room in your bowl and boom: one of the tastiest pork dishes I've ever eaten. We went back to this place for a repeat.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Another dish composed of the winning combination (noodles, freshly cooked meat and herbs). This salad starts with thinly sliced beef that is stir-fried fresh to order, to which noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, fried shallots, lemongrass, garlic, green mango, fresh herbs, and a tangy dressing are added.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
We quickly realized eating the free breakfast in our hotel was a major mistake as soon as we discovered banh cuon, a thin, freshly made rice pancake filled with minced pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, and only served in the morning. One serving contains about 10 of these darling crepes, which we found to taste more like dumplings. They're topped with fried shallots and basil, and served with a dipping sauce. If the filling isn't breakfasty enough for you, you can ask for one to be made with an egg inside instead of the traditional filling.
Banh Cuon vendors: 14 Hang Ga; also in alley off of Au Trieu (next to St Joseph's Cathedral)
This is the one Vietnamese dish that is well-known around the world, but not surprisingly, it tastes best in Vietnam. It seems that pho joints take up almost every other hole-in-the-wall storefront or alleyway. Pho is served with either chicken or beef most of the time, and we definitely preferred the beef variety (pho bo). We soon learned that we had always eaten southern Vietnamese pho in the US, which is served with bean sprouts and piles of herbs on the side, and also with a thinner, rounder noodle than in the north. But both varieties start with a delicious beef broth that takes at least eight hours to make, to which soft, fresh noodles, thinly sliced onions, herbs, and tender slices of beef are added just before serving. Pho is usually eaten for breakfast, but can often be found later on in the day too since it's such a popular meal.
Pho Bo vendor, alley off the east side of Ly Quoc Su, near intersection of Ngo Huyen
These Vietnamese sandwiches are probably the second most famous Vietnamese street food (after pho). However, we had assumed that banh my referred to a sandwich with specific fillings (thinly sliced red roasted pork, mayo, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers), since that is the only Vietnamese sandwich I've ever seen on a menu in the U.S. Turns out banh my is actually just a term for the French-style baguette so ubiquitous in Vietnam, and it can be served with numerous fillings. Old habits die hard though, and the pork variety is still our favorite.
Banh My stand, on Hang Ga just north of the intersection with Hang Phen
I wish I could tell you what was in these savory fried snacks, but I have no idea. What I do know is that you cannot go wrong with one of these tasty treats. Vietnam's version of the Indian samosa is served with plenty of fresh herbs and a tangy dip made with fish sauce and pickled veggies.
Ban Ghoi vendor, 52 Ly Quoc Su
Xoi is sticky rice, and a popular way to fill up on the cheap. Many fast food xoi joints can be found in Hanoi where you pick a kind of xoi (plain, with corn, etc.), and then choose from a list of meat and veggie toppings. We tried plain sticky rice with cinnamon pork, plain sticky rice with corn and chinese braised pork, and sticky rice with corn, chicken, and mushrooms. The third bowl was probably excessive, but we indulged nevertheless because it was too delicious!
Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan
Although it's not a street food, cha ca deserves a mention here because it's such a typical Hanoi dish. There are a couple very old cha ca institutions in Hanoi, and they serve only that. The morsels of turmeric-dusted juicy catfish are cooked at your table with fresh dill and green onions, and are served with noodles, more fresh herbs, fish sauce, peanuts, and chilies. At first we didn't get what the big deal was, but as soon as we bit into the fish, we understood this dish's popularity: the fish was some of the most tender and flavorful that we've ever had. I know I won't be able to re-create this dish at home, so I guess we'll just have to return to Hanoi if we ever want to taste it again!
Cha Ca, 21 Duong Thanh
Some like it sweet: the Vietnamese certainly do. They make their coffee strong and mix it with almost an equal amount of condensed milk (they call it "sweet milk"), which is sinful but addictive. Caphe trung takes this to the next level: condensed milk is whipped with an egg white until it reaches a consistency nearing mousse, and this is poured on top of strong iced coffee. You eat it with a spoon, because let's be honest: this drink is not coffee, it's a decadent dessert. I'm shocked Starbucks hasn't hopped on this train ("Vietccino" doesn't have the best ring to it though).
Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
What I loved about Lao food is the predominance of salads and appetizer-type dishes, allowing for an incredibly varied meal. Ingredients are fresh, combinations are creative, fat content is low, and we always felt satisfied and healthily full after our meals. Sticky rice is ubiquitous; it seemed no meal can be eaten without it. Food is eaten with your hands, by grabbing a small amount of sticky rice, forming a small ball, and dipping it into whatever vegetable or meat dish you're eating.
Some of our favorite dishes included the classic laap, a spicy salad made with minced pork or beef, fish sauce, mint leaves, lime juice, and chilies. While vegetables are delicious and fresh, meat is important and we found many dishes involving water buffalo. In Luang Prabang, a city in the north, we tried jeow bong, a dip made from sweet chili paste and buffalo skin, served with fresh veggies for dipping. Sounds gross, right? I thought so too, but it was actually quite tasty and there was no obvious "skin" texture. We also enjoyed sinh savanh, which is dried buffalo meat and very similar to meat jerky that we eat in the US.
While Laos probably can't beat Thailand or Vietnam in a gastronomic showdown, we were pleasantly surprised at how fresh and creative the Lao cuisine is.
This oversized grenade of a fruit is a love/hate affair. It has a nasty reputation for smelling like trash, but durian fans are willing to overlook its scent's peculiar similarity to dumpster air in order to enjoy the sweet, rich, custard-like meat.
Our introduction to the fruit was in ice cream format in Myanmar, where we concluded that it tasted and smelled like onions, and was not exactly the after-lunch sweet treat we were looking for. But we gave it another shot in its unprocessed form and ended up really liking and even craving it. It can be found at most markets where other fruit is sold throughout southeast Asia, and can often be bought in sections since it can be quite a large fruit and has a heftier price tag than most other fruits. The taste is sweet and floral, not unlike the mighty jackfruit, but the consistency is what really got us hooked: it's creamy, almost like souffle or pudding, and the sections are big enough that you can take huge bites of it at once, without pesky skin or pits getting in your way. Just don't leave it in your room like we did once for a few hours...afterward the whole place smelled of restaurant trash!
We didn't get the chance to take a cooking class in Thailand due to the craziness of the Songkran celebrations, so we signed up for the next best thing: a Khmer (Cambodian) cooking class in Siem Reap. It was the perfect break from temple-hopping during the middle of the steamy hot day. We weren't sure exactly what Cambodian cooking was, since it was our second full day in the country, but it turns out it is quite similar to Thai cooking, but a bit less spicy. Main ingredients include coconut, lemongrass, coriander, basil, ginger, turmeric, garlic, sugar, lime, fish sauce, and peanuts.
We each made an appetizer and a main dish, and then the whole group picked one dessert to cook together. Our day started off with a trip to the market, where I tried not to drip my sweat all over the produce stands (sidenote: Siem Reap has to be the hottest place I've ever been), and then we took to the kitchen and got to it.
Our appetizers included fresh spring rolls with pork (one of my favorite apps, and one which I plan to make at home) and banana flower salad. While we probably won't be able to find banana flowers in DC, we wanted to make a typical Khmer salad. Unripened papaya or mango can be used instead of the banana flowers, and unripened tropical fruit shouldn't be too hard to find in DC! The dressing for the spring rolls and the salad is the same: lime, sugar, cilantro, garlic, shallot, fish sauce, and sweet red chilis (peanuts can be added afterwards). I could drink this stuff by the quart!
Cambodia's most famous national dish is amok, a coconut-based curry served in a banana leaf cup that can have any kind of meat or seafood in it, but fish amok is the most popular version. We made ours with scallops.
The other main dish we made was a sour soup, much like Thailand's tom yum soup, with lemongrass and morning glory. I made mine with chicken. It was incredibly tasty, fresh, tart, and light (there's another version made with coconut milk, but that makes it a heavier affair).
For dessert, our teacher showed us how to make pumpkin custard: essentially eggs, coconut milk, cornstarch and sugar beaten together and steamed inside a small pumpkin-- super easy and delicious. After cooking for over two hours, we sat down with our fellow novice chefs and had a feast!
If you'd like to take a stab at any of these dishes, or other Khmer specialties, videos and recipes from our cooking school can be found here
The great thing about eating in Bangkok is you never have to look very hard for delicious food. There are stands and makeshift restaurants on every street corner selling all kinds of yummy snacks, from the ubiquitous and filling pad thai to roasted crickets to coconut-based desserts. Here is a sampling of the food we grazed on as we wandered the streets of Thailand's capital.
We spent an evening doing a food tour on Rangnam Road (near Victory Monument) after seeing an article in Travelfish that made our mouths water. By the end of our little tour we had eaten a noodle and veg soup with roasted pork, a roasted pork salad with sticky rice, margaritas, and a dessert that consisted of a green tea shake poured over soft white bread cubes and topped with condensed milk (tasted better than it sounds!).
We also spent a couple days filling our bellies by grazing on small snacks as we wandered around Bangkok during Songkran (the country-wide water fight celebration for the New Year). Some of the snacks we ate include:
Steamed dumplings, filled with different kinds of meat or veggies (about $0.60 for 6)
Next up were these thick, fried pancakes (about $0.30 each). There's nothing in the center-- they just pop up like that while being fried.
These little quail eggs are cracked into a pan with tiny egg-sized indentations and fried. Sometimes there is a thin layer of rice flour on the outside, and two are stacked facing each other with some chopped tomatoes or chilis in the middle, making a golf ball-sized croquet. (You get about 12 halves or 6 croquettes for $1)
These little snacks were coconut-based desserts had a texture somewhere between jelly and pudding. They're steamed in tiny porcelain cups and then scooped out and sold by the dozen (for about $1).
Finally, here's a snack we did not gather enough courage to try: roasted bugs. Nick was actually quite close to trying a grasshopper (or was it a cricket?), but right before he ordered, he saw the pile of 2-3 inch long locusts (which looked like Texas roaches to me), and quickly bailed on the whole idea. Thankfully!
Bugs aside, if you're ever in Bangkok, don't bother eating at the restaurants-- grazing on street food is much more fun, cheap, and delicious!
I don't think we knew what to expect from Myanmar cooking, but we ended up finding some gems during our culinary exporations. Burmese meals often consist of a buffet of meat and seafood curries sitting in a ton of oil that you pick by pointing at what you want, and are served with a vegetable soup (the ones we had were sour, leafy, and actually quite tasty), rice, a big plate of fresh veggies and herbs, chili and fish-based dips, and vegetable side dishes, which ranged from delicious pumpkin curry to cabbage that tasted as though it had been fermenting in cheap beer for a bit too long. In sum, these buffets were pretty hit or miss, and every time we found ourselves at one that looked less than appealing, we always felt it would be rude (and too late) to walk out of the restaurant, so we definitely ended up eating some underwhelming and over-oiled meals a few times.
However, we had read about the various noodle dishes from Shan state, a large state in eastern Myanmar where we spent about half our time. We sought these out at hotel breakfasts, from street shacks whenever hunger would strike, and at tea houses, and we were never disappointed. The noodles were soft and chewy, the broth was simple but tasty, and the ingredients ranged from sliced pork to fried chicken to fish balls. Throw in a few sprigs of herbs and top if off with as much chili powder as you want, and you have a delicious meal! Here are a few of the dozens of noodle bowls we happily slurped up:
Another Myanmar specialty worth mentioning is laphet, a fermented tea leaf salad. The tea leaves are mixed with other ingredients such as peanuts, cabbage, sesame seeds, crunchy fried peas, and lime juice, and it actually makes for a refreshing and tasty salad with a satisfying mix of crunchy and soft textures. The only problem is the caffeine: I spent a very sleepless night after eating this dish at dinner one night!
Desserts were hard to find; we saw the occasional Indian-style milk-based sweet vendor and stumbled upon a few ice cream shops (found out the hard way that durian ice cream gives you onion breath), but we kept seeing this multi-colored concoction being ordered by the locals, often in plastic bags with a straw sticking out, and decided to give it a shot. Turns out it's called shwe yin aye, and it can be described as a deconstructed pudding jello salad smoothie. What, your mouth isn't watering yet?! Not to worry, it was actually not that bad. The puzzling dessert drink contained what we think was strawberry-flavored milk (but it could have easily been red dye + coconut milk), tapioca pudding, gelatinous fruity syrup(s), chunks of soft white bread, Jello, fresh coconut, raisins, ice, and probably a couple other ingredients we didn't even recognize. While it probably won't be winning any international culinary praise any time soon and is more likely to turn up in a hospital cafeteria, we were glad we sampled this mysterious refreshment!
A small sign in the bustling and over-saturated backpacker area of Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal calls to us. It's small, shares no details, and is overpowered by the other bright signs around it, food carts, hotel- and trek touts, and live music coming from all directions, but it proclaims simply, "Cookie Walla". We must go.
We walk down the dimly-lit alley, past a restaurant and a guest house, and nearly walk too far before a young man sticks his head out the doorway: "Cookie Walla?" We enter.
We're shown into a small and dark space, asked to sit on some mattresses on the floor, and given our options by the energetic young man. The Cookie Walla is a young Kathmandu resident with two talents: making delicious desserts, and making that popping noise you can make with your tongue and the roof of your mouth, about ten times louder than anyone you've ever met, with which he punctuates the end of nearly every sentence. We figure he chose the profession that best utilized his two talents, and boy are we glad.
The frozen concoction we ended up with, and eagerly devoured on our walk home was made of a cookie crust, ice cream, chocolate sauce, and bananas, and wouldn't be out of place at a midwestern barbecue. It's serendipitous experiences like this one, ones that we stumble upon accidentally and would never find their way into a guide book, that will surely be some of our favorite and most-lasting experiences of our journey.
The thali was probably our favorite Indian meal, or at least the one we had the most times. Present on nearly every menu in India, and differing a bit from region to region, it's generally a generous portion of rice, another carb like the crispy, fried papad cracker or a flatbread such as roti or chapatti, and three or four savory sauces--usually lentils and potatoes, a spicy, pickled vegetable, often a veg curry, and sometimes meat, curd (yogurt), salad, soup, or a sweet. They're a very traditional staple dish of most Indians, and if you get away from the tourist restaurants, your host will keep offering to refill any dish you finish until you're completely stuffed.
And those are just the ones we took pictures of!