Friday, October 25, 2013

Frequently Asked Friday: Best Meals?

Anyone who knows us knows we travel on our stomachs. And we certainly ate enough this year for some weight gain. So the question is, was it worth it? And if so, what was the best meal you ate? 

First of all, it was worth it. There is some work to be done to undo the damage of our consumption in the last year, but it’s ok. Most of the time the experience outweighed any caloric overload in the decision-making process.  But we couldn’t narrow it down to one meal, as we each had some pretty solid contenders that came to mind as soon as we started thinking about it.  These are in chronological rather than ranked order, as we couldn’t choose one favorite.


Steak and Lamb Asado in El Calafate, Argentina
One of the first best meals we had may have been a little circumstantial on Lana’s part, but we think it still counts. Lana caught a pretty devastating cold from David while we were in Buenos Aires, and by the time we made it to Patagonia she had completely lost her sense of taste.  Gelato tasted only vaguely sweet. Nothing was spicy or salty or anything. Everything she ate was little more than a texture. But, finally, finally, her taste came back to her when we were in El Calafate. To celebrate, we decided to splurge and go to a steakhouse (Casimiro Bigua) we had eyed a few times and walked away from, since there’s no point in spending money on steak when you can’t taste anything. But our faces (and noses) turned to the window each time we walked by because of this:

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This is crucified lamb, which essentially means it’s opened up and set at 45 degree angle from a wood fire, so it cooks low and slow, until all the fat has rendered out and it’s taken on some of the smoky taste of the wood smoke.  Once Lana could smell it, she agreed it smelled mouth-wateringly, stomach rumblingly delicious.  David had lamb asado, and Lana had a thick steak.  Both were amazing.  Lana was particularly won over by her steak (she’s not usually a big red meat fan), as it was perfectly cooked, tender, and one of the first things she was able to taste in over a week. We also shared sides of mashed potatoes and sliced baked sweet potatoes. 

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On a side note, the restaurant had a small keypad at each table with buttons to summon a waiter for drinks/food, to pay the check, and to cancel a mistaken button press.  We didn’t particularly have trouble ordering or getting our check in South America, but we were well versed in (and even appreciative of) the hands-off style of waiters outside the US.  It was the only time we saw a device like this.

Bale Well in Hoi An, Vietnam
One night in Hoi An, Vietnam, we were having a mediocre meal when we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us. They were from London, on a post-exams trip through Asia, enjoying the fact that they could smoke cheaply and everywhere, and generally amazed by how cheap everything was.  It was true that everything was cheap, and we chimed in on our own amazement.  In the course of our conversation they asked if we’d been to Bale Well yet. Bale Well? What’s that?  They gave us some dubious directions (it’s down a back alley) but raved about the food and the experience.  We planned to go there the next night, and when we ran into some friends we’d made in Halong Bay, we asked if they wanted to go to dinner together. We eventually managed to find the place, as did Tara and Leo.

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This was an amazing meal not only because of the dishes, but because of the experience. You sit down, order a drink, and before the drink comes, plates of food begin arriving. There is no menu, as they only serve one thing. But the thing they serve is a set menu of a dish called nem nuong, which is essentially DIY spring rolls that begin with rice paper, veggies and herbs, and some variety of satay skewers of chicken, beef, or pork, as well as fried shrimp wrapped in rice paper. They also served savory banh xeo pancakes, which you can use as a wrap for the veggies and satay, using the rice paper as a sort of edible napkin. There was also some pickled carrots and cabbage and a spicy dipping sauce, which went down well with a local beer. The proprietress comes out to show you how to assemble the rolls, wrapping them up for each of us, and coming back every so often to make sure you were doing it correctly. Everyone else wanted to make their own, but Lana was perfectly content to let the owner make her perfectly assembled rolls.

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Once you think you’re making some headway on the dishes on the table, they bring out more. And more. And more again. When you refuse any further food, they bring out some mousse like dessert, and then a whole pineapple to finish things off. As you can tell we did our best, and left the table groaning and greasy from assembling our own rolls. It was enormous, fabulous, and incredibly cheap. I think the whole meal (including drinks and dessert) came in around $9.00 for the two of us.

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Kofte in Cairo, Egypt
Whether it was because we were in a tour group, with a tour guides who know their stuff, or all of the food in Egypt and Jordan was delicious (or we were just lucky), we had some of the most consistently good food on our tour of Egypt and Jordan. This meal was at Eash Sakkara, a mixed grill place that we visited twice while we were in Cairo, once for lunch when we went to Memphis and Sakkara, and again for dinner after seeing The Great Pyramids before taking the overnight train to Aswan. This was a set meal, which came with a small tabletop grill filled with grilled vegetables, chicken, and kofte meatballs, which are a cylindrical meatball made of ground beef and lamb. The Egyptian variety (we had them in Jordan and later in Turkey as well) was our favorite in terms of spices. The meal came with pita, tahini, and a variety of appetizers including cheese, eggplant, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, and tomatoes topped with herbs. It was a truly spectacular meal, which ended with a dessert of a whole orange per person—which was fantastic, as we were already stuffed.

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This meal was also extra special because it ended with a joint birthday cake for us from our tour guide, Mudi, which was half fruit/half chocolate, to satisfy a variety of sweet teeth among us. It was a crazy day, and it also happened to be David’s 42nd birthday, so it was a delicious birthday meal to boot.

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Mandi in Jerash, Jordan
This next one is kind of a long story, but suffice it to say there were a couple of pranksters in our G Adventures tour group who cooked up a “change” in our itinerary on the day we were scheduled to go to our tour guide’s home town, Jerash.  Instead of touring the famous sites, we would have a much more “personal” tour which included some specific sites in the history of one “remarkable Jordanian”:

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Our guide Zuhair had a wonderful sense of humor (he posted this on his Facebook page), and decided to call our bluff. He called his mom up and asked her to make us lunch (see point **). Apparently she said, sure, what do you want me to make? Why don’t I make your favorite dish?  The result was that after we had a long day touring the ancient Roman city of Jerash we did, in fact, go to Zuhair’s ancestral home and had a home cooked meal made by his mother. Unfortunately we were so late arriving that we actually didn’t get to meet her, as she had to head out to a family engagement party. We did, however, get to meet his oldest brother, who was an incredibly gracious host. 

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The dish she made for us is called Mandi, which apparently is Yemeni in origin, but is popular throughout the Arabian peninsula. I have been promised the recipe (this version) by Zuhair, but he has yet to deliver. It may be because it’s an incredibly complex dish, including plain and flavored rice, which is tossed with sultana raisins, almonds, cinammon, bay leaves, and many other things I couldn’t identify.  It was accompanied by thick yogurt (both with and without dill), a cucumber, cabbage and tomato salad, and some sort of salsa-like condiment that had some heat but the burn didn’t last. 

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As you can see by this photo, we did the best we could to finish everything off, but we couldn’t quite manage it, as much as we wanted to. Zuhair and his brother were the consummate hosts.  We were incredibly honored that he would share his home and table with us, and we were so sad we didn’t get to meet his mother to thank her properly for the meal.  We couldn’t believe that she would make up an enormous and complex dish for nine complete strangers on the spur of the moment. But now, at the end of our travels, we realized that we had this experience over and over around the world. People are gracious everywhere. 

We have to say, if we had to pick a winner this might be the one—because it was delicious, but also because it was home-cooked and made with love.

The Mill Wheel in Krakow, Poland

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Ah, the Mill Wheel. We had a lot of delicious and stodgy food on our swing through Central Europe—lots of potatoes, lots of sausage, lots of beer. And while it was all (mostly) good, this meal was pretty much the epitome for us. A large potato pancake (basically the size of a salad plate), topped with smoked cheese and cranberry sauce (left), bacon with a paprika sauce (right), and pork with some sort of sour cream sauce (in the background). It was huge, it was a heavyweight, and it was delicious. We had this the first time after touring Auschwitz and Birkenau, and it was a nourishing meal after a difficult day. It was so good we went back two nights later and had it again. This restaurant (Restauracja W) also had great pierogies, and a Sunday special of a chicken noodle soup that was lovely. But nothing compared to the Mill Wheel.

And then of course we start talking about runner-ups, like the meal made for us by the owner of our hotel in Hoi An, and the meal we had in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, the place we went to twice in Pucon, Chile because David loved the food so much, and a wood-fired pizza place in Puerto Natales, Chile and…well. It was a good year of meals. Sure, there were bad meals (that’s another post), but on the whole we succeeded in sampling the local cuisine wherever we went, and we were rarely disappointed.