Lifestyle,  Self-discovery,  Travel

For My Fellow Foodies (Spoiler Alert: Don’t Read When Hungry!)

While strolling the streets of Chinatown in Newcastle, England last night, I decided to step into a Thai Massage parlor. I figured, Why not? Might just help with my post-holiday back aches. As I climbed the narrow steps to the first floor of the building, memories of amazing traditional Thai massages I had experienced a few years ago in Asia suddenly came back to me. Small, quiet, dimmed and aromatic rooms, neat massage mattresses on the floor, the pajamas I had to change into, the Thai ladies stepping all over my body, cracking my bones and stretching my lethargic body from head to toe with their forearms. I remembered feeling as though I was a doll they were playing with, completely relaxing my body and mind as they oscillated between pressure and relaxation techniques. Without forgetting that special touch of herbal tea at the end of the session, of course.
Well, last night’s experience didn’t quite go down as I had imagined. The parlor was nice, clean, warm and zen, which was just fine, and the personnel was Thai all right. But the massage itself, on the other hand, was a blend of traditional Thai massage, hot stone massage and oil massage..! I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as a good, full-on traditional Thai massage.

One of the make-or-break differences here (and it’s a major one) was that I had a very chatty Thai masseuse who just wouldn’t stop talking and asking questions. That said, seeing as she was pleasant and the conversation funny, I went along with it. Throughout the entire 60 minutes, in between each of my body contortions, we spoke mostly of and reminisced on Thailand… as well as – get this – its food! Bet you weren’t expecting that one, huh?

Anyway, needless to say, that massage sent me down memory lane and, more importantly, made me hungry! I walked home my stomach gurgling (not to mention I’m fasting 18 hours a day), and my mind wandering off to all the mouth-watering international dishes that left a memorable pallet of flavors forever carved in my culinary culture. We’d be here all week if I tried to list them all, but I’ve narrowed it down to 10 dishes that never fail to send me off on a culinary orgasm.

1. Colorful Caribbean Rice & Beans

Black Beans & Rice with Avocado & Tostones

I’ll admit that this is a subjective choice, seeing as I grew up and lived several years on a Caribbean island myself. There are many different types of rice and beans in the region, but my favorite one of all involves plain white rice, accompanied by black or red kidney bean sauce poured on top, served with goat “griot” (pronounced gree-oh), a couple of creamy avocado slices on the side, and a few caramelized sweet banana slices, too – to die for! The diced goat chunks are often marinated in citrus and Scotch bonnet chiles, then simmered until very tender before being fried crisp and brown. You can find variations of this meal from island to island, and even within each country. This dish is interchangeable with fried green plantains (tostones) instead of the caramelized banana, pork, beef or chicken meat instead of goat, and the beans are often mixed in with the rice when cooking… But my favorite will always be the way described above. Depending on the beans used, you’ll obtain different shades of colorful rice.

2. Traditional Romanian Sarmales

Traditional Romanian Sarmales (in grape leaves) with Polenta & Sour Cream

This meal also hits quite close to home. Picture grape leaf rolls stuffed with a mix of white rice, ground beef, ground pork, onions, tomato paste and local seasoning. It’s a complex dish that simmers over the stove for hours. It can also be prepared with cabbage leaves instead of grape leaves and is usually served with polenta and sour cream. Pofta Buna!

3. Japanese Sushi Set revisité

Japanese Sushi Set

I love Japanese cuisine in general, but I particularly enjoy having an assorted meal combining miso soup, fresh sashimi, sushi and maki served with soy sauce, wasabi and gari (pickled ginger). I’ll usually have the miso first, then mix a bit of wasabi in soy sauce and dip my sashimi, sushi and maki bites for the ultimate aromatic taste. I tend to leave any raw veggies and the gari for last – plain and simple. Once, and only once, I did fall upon a few very special sushi rolls. I have since never found them made that way again, but still to this day, I just can’t seem to forget how extraordinary they were. Their uniqueness came from the combination of Philadelphia cheese, pieces of crispy crab tempura and a touch of sweet cooked banana. Honestly, there are no words to explain the sensation after having eaten something so delicious. Shokuyoku!

4. Assorted Lebanese Mezze

Lebanese Mezze

I actually haven’t been to Lebanon yet, but I knew a fine Lebanese cook that initiated me to what became one of my favorite cuisines in the world. At her table, I dipped my Pita bread in labhne, hummus and baba ghanouj. I indulged in countless delicious and refined mezzes such as tabbouleh, sambousek and falafel. I’ve since moved, and I’m no longer in contact with that fabulous woman, but I continuously pop into Lebanese restaurants whenever I get the chance, and will continue to do so until I get a chance to travel there and taste the authentic cuisine in Lebanon one day!

5. Roman-Jewish Deep-Fried Artichokes

Roman-Jewish Deep-Fried Artichokes

While on a holiday in Rome once, I tasted these unforgettable crispy fried artichokes. I mean, let’s face it, I grew up eating artichokes, but I was stunned at how Italians have so many different recipes for this very unknown (or so I thought) vegetable. It was artichoke season and trattorias everywhere had them stacked in baskets at their entrance. Italians might just be the only ones capable of taking such a simple, plainly cooked vegetable and pulling off something so delightful… Una delizia!

6. Tahitian Raw Fish Salad

Tahitian Raw Tuna Salad

I can never get enough of raw fish, so when in Tahiti, I was delighted to discover this fresh, colorful dish made of marinated raw fish (often tuna), cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, onion, lime and black pepper. However, what makes this dish all-so-special is the last ingredient: coconut milk! Aside from tuna, it can equally be made with crab, lobster, mussels, octopus, squid, prawns, sea urchins as well as other fresh raw fish. Gosh, just writing this out makes me miss French Polynesia so much, and the food there isn’t the only reason (but that’s another story).

7. Vietnamese Pho

Vietnamese Beef Pho

Pho is a soup that consists of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat – usually beef, sometimes chicken. It’s a popular street food in Vietnam, yet equally served in restaurants around the world. It’s usually served in big portions and the ingredients are perfectly blended and cooked together. I especially appreciate the tender beef and aromas emanating from the herbs. You won’t need to eat anything else after a good healthy Pho!

8. Greek Appetizers

Traditional Greek Tzatziki

Where do I even start? Let’s see… While sailing the Greek islands and hopping from Taberna to Taberna, I indulged in so many Greek dishes that I can’t even remember them all myself. Essentially, when you sit at a Taberna, you hardly need to look at the menu at all. In fact, it’s generally easier to just ask the waiter to bring you an assortment of local appetizers and dishes, along with the white or rosé house wine, which in my opinion, almost never fails. The specialties differ from one island to the next, but my regulars are Dakos: a dry barley rusk bread soaked in olive oil and topped with sliced tomatoes, herbs, capers and feta cheese. Tzatziki: a dip made from yogurt, cucumber, garlic, dill and olive oil. Saganaki: fried feta cheese. Lakerda: a pickled bonito fish. Florina peppers: roasted red bell peppers dressed with olive oil and vinegar, stuffed with feta cheese and herbs. The traditional Greek Salad. And my all-time favorites: fried squid, grilled octopus, and grilled mackerel. Efcharistó to the Greeks for these God-given dishes!

9. Homemade Mexican Guacamole

Authentic Homemade Mexican Guacamole

Guacamole has become part of international and American cuisine; however I usually make it at home as a real-size salad, not just a dip – like the Mexicans and Aztecs originally intended. Aside from the traditional lime juice, cilantro and jalapenos, I’ll add small tomato dices and basil. That said though, I could eat anything avocado, all day, every day… Buen provecho!

10. Thai Mango Sticky Rice

Thai Mango Sticky Rice

You probably guessed right: this dish won me points with last night’s Thai masseuse. But it’s no joke, this Thai dessert is one of my all-time favorite deserts in the world! It’s very simple, made with just glutinous white rice, fresh yellow mango, and coconut milk. It’s consumed in many parts of Asia, and usually best during mango season. There are so many varieties of mangoes in Asia, just like in the Caribbean. Now that I think of it, I can imagine that the reason I like this dessert so much is probably because it combines many of the ingredients I grew up consuming in the Caribbean. I wonder why we haven’t thought of this combination around here yet! Kap Khun Ka Thaïland for this sweet delight!

There are so many other dishes that would have easily made the list, like Indian Chicken Masala, Vanuatu Laplap, Burmese-style Hot Pot, Western African Maafe, Oriental Couscous, Romanian Mezeluri, Croatian Strukli, Polish Goulash, Sicilian Arancini, French Crêpes and Macarons, Swiss Raclette and Fondue, Eastern-European Ciorba, and Indonesian Coconut Pancakes just to name a few… But if I have to get down to the nitty gritty and choose a top 10, then I’m pretty comfortable saying that these would be them!

Sarah the Digital GypSea

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“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

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