Tag Archives: food

Tasty Hong Kong

10 Feb

An HK favorite: macaroni and beef in cream of tomato soup with toast and eggs

One VERY important thing about Hong Kong (or at least to me) is the abundance of tasty food. No matter where you go in Hong Kong, there will always be a place near by (or in most cases right next to you) where you’ll be able to get a bite to eat. Due to Hong Kong being the  economic hub of Asia, many people of many different ethnicity come to Hong Kong and bring with them their cuisine. Whether you’re a Malay, Singaporean, or even a Nigerian, there’s a restaurant making food from home. Heck, there were even Halal restaurants, and quite a few of them. (and I must say the kebab was pretty good). My top pick has to be the Japanese ramen restaurant Ichiban, which would consistently have a line outside longer than ten people. If you’re homesick, there’ll always be a McDonald’s right around the corner, but most local food is actually cheaper and tastier. Speaking of tasty, dessert in Hong Kong is pretty darn good. A lot of the desserts are fruit-based and primarily consist of fruit in some form, so you don’t have to feel guilty when eating a lot. I know I sure didn’t! Now: some food photos!

Mango with black rice and sago at Satay King. This is a dessert!

Ice cream/pudding/sago/jelly ball dessert at Chung Kee Dessert

More ice cream at Chung Kee Dessert

Some dim sum

Surprisingly good discount sushi

Ultra cool and tasty Ichiban ramen

I don’t remember the name of the food or place, but this halal dish tasted good with some mint sauce!

Pork roast, mint beef, and octopus. Tasty restaurant trip a few days before I left Hong Kong

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eat. PRAY. love. Holy Week in Italy

3 Apr

Image

(Originally published 4/12)

PRAY! I knew being in Italy for Easter Week was going to be spectacular; however, what I actually experienced surpassed every expectation.  Being a very Catholic country, I knew I was going to be visiting numerous chapels, basilicas and churches.  In Rome alone, there are over 900 Catholic Churches!  And I thought Madrid had a lot with 500! As a devout Catholic, I knew this was going to be one Holy Week and Easter that I would never forget.    My Italian church experience began on Palm Sunday in Venice.  After winding through narrow street after narrow street following hard to read signs directing us to San Marcos Basilica,  the streets opened up into a huge piazza(plaza) with the Basilica as the centerpiece.   It was so refreshing to be out in open air and see the gorgeous Basilica welcoming the thousands of tourists. Because we were going to Mass, we didn’t have to wait in the visiting line, instead we went in the line for the door that read “prayers only”.  It made me feel more like a local and less like a tourist to be going to Mass in this breathtaking city and church.  As people from the earlier Mass filed out, we were astounded at what they were carrying :Palms, of course, as it was Palm Sunday, however,  it was an entire a palm tree branch taller than many of the  short Italians carrying them!  I knew I was in for a treat.  When we finally filled in, the outstanding architecture stole my breath away.  The Mass was just starting and the choir in perfect harmony carried through the tall stone structure.  Even though Mass was said in Italian, I was able to easily follow along.  There is something special about being able to hear Mass said in different languages, it really makes me realize how universal the Catholic Church is and gives me a new appreciation for what is happening during the service.  

On Good Friday we were in Cinque Terre, a National park boasting the only untouched Italian Riviera.  The hiking and breathtaking mountain views were enough to make me fall in love with this small Italian town.  However, while we were eating dinner that night, we heard someone talking/singing/chanting.  Suddenly our waitress ran to the door, shut off all the lights, and stood outside to watch.  Curious, we joined the crowds to observe what was going on.  As I looked up the hill leading to the local church, I saw a large procession with people carrying a huge cross followed by Jesus and Mary depicted with swords piercing her heart in pain of her son’s death, making me feel an overwhelming sense of grief.  After watching for a while, my friend and I decided to join the procession of the Stations of the Cross through the town. It was such a moving site to see all the locals remember the terrible death of Jesus.  Further, it was amazing how faith can unify cultures.  We couldn’t really understand what was being said, but we were able to join the locals in prayer. No one gave us weird looks for jumping in or for not being able to recite the prayers, we were welcomed into this very local event with open arms.

Our next stop was Rome, as you can imagine this was the highlight of my spiritual experience.  One of the coolest parts of my trip was going to Easter Mass in St. Peters Square at the Vatican.  The amount of people filing into St Peters square at this hour was unreal, but there was such tranquility about it.  Any other situation with such a high volume of people would have been mayhem.  When we filed I was astounded by the shear vastness of the key shaped square. A huge open area surrounds by buildings with 140 saint statues carved by the famous Bernini standing on top looking down over the crowd.  St. Peters Basilica with its famous window in which the Pope appears to give his blessing captures the eyes and hearts of those in its presence. This incredible Basilica designed by Michelangelo and Bramante sits on top of St. Peters grave.  Before this Basilica was built, another Basilica stood in the exact same spot that was built when Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become Christian, built the Basilica here.  The Altar was especially beautiful as it was decorated for Easter with thousands of blooming flowers in various colors.  As people continued filling in, the square was quickly filling up with people from all around the world.   We could see all of the different countries present because it is tradition to bring your home countries flag to wave before Mass to show where you have journeyed from.   As I sat in my chair underneath the blue brisk sky, I couldn’t wait for Mass to start. With 30 minutes left, the procession to the Alter with the countless Swiss Army Guards( the Vatican’s official Army) began with trumpets, drums, and bells.   My anticipation was rising! I couldn’t believe I was standing in the Vatican on Easter about to hear the Holy Father say Mass. With only a few minutes before it was to start, the sky turned dark and it started to sprinkle.  Oh no!  What were we going to do?  However, miraculously, as soon as the service started, the clouds parted.  How perfect!  The joy of Easter Mass was represented perfectly by the Joy the sun brought everyone in the square.  The rain was a quick reminder for me of the sadness of Christ’s passion but the sun then showed me the joy of His resurrection.  Mass was said in Latin, so naturally it was hard to follow, but we were all given booklets with the English translation.  Despite not knowing the Latin language, it was quite the experience to hear Mass said EXACTLY how it was when the church started.  Those precise words were used when Mass had to be said in secret during the early days of Christianity!  The shear idea of being able to share that with the first Christians brings joy to my heart.   The choir echoing through the vast square, the look of awe and joy on many of the audience’s faces, and sun shining down made it a perfect moment.   After Mass, the Pope went up to his famous window to say the Easter Blessing in at least 25 different languages.  Once again, I was amazed at how many people from all over the world had made the pilgrimage to the Holy City to celebrate Christ’s resurrection as each nationality cheered when the Pope spoke in their native tongue!   Because the Vatican was incredibly crowded after Easter Mass, we decided we were going to come back later in the week to actually tour the Basilica and visit the Museums

Because I had already gone to Easter Mass with the Pope in the Vatican, I was not expecting to be as moved spiritually when I returned.  However, I could not have been more wrong.   Walking up the steps to the entrance, I was in awe that I was standing exactly where the Pope said Easter Mass just a few days ago, directly below the Popes window.  As a gazed out across St. Peters square, the Easter Flowers that framed my view reminded me once again how spectacular Easter Mass had been.   When we entered the grand doors with hundreds of other tourists, I was amazed to find out that daily Mass was currently going on.  Most churches close their doors to tourists during Mass, so I felt a bit of disrespect as hundreds of people chatted casually and snapped photos during the service. Torn between my love for the Mass and my desire to see the entire Basilica, I split my time between the two.  First, I was drawn in by Michelangelo’s Pieta.   A statue he carved when he was only 24 of the Blessed Mother holding the body of her son.  This statue is especially important because Michelangelo decided that instead of depicting Mary in  grief and despair, as she had always been in past art work, he gave her a face full of peace.  This allows those who reflect upon this great piece of art to understand human suffering and teach them how to accept life’s challenges.   This is also the only Statue that Michelangelo signed.  However, he did not sign his name on the piece of cloth strung around Mary’s body until he was not receiving credit for this masterpiece! 

Good FridayAfter observing this masterpiece for some time, the beautiful sounds of Mass drew me back to the center of the church.  I wanted to just sit and participate however; the pews were blocked off to keep tourists from wondering up the aisle and disrupting the service. Longing to join in, I stood in the back just taking in the beautiful church listening to the service.   After a while, I went to visit the other small chapels lining the edge of the church.  Because I didn’t have a guide, I wasn’t exactly sure of what I seeing, but just the beauty was enough for me.  I found a chapel that had a sign that read “for prayers only” so I stepped in and kneeled amongst several other devout Christians who wanted to step away from the normal tourists and really connect with God.  This small act of prayer brought so much joy to my day as I continued wondering.  I came upon another chapel with the Tomb of St. Pius X.  You could actually see his real hand through the glass tomb.  This had significant meaning to me as my home parish is called St. Pius X Catholic Church.  

Again I was overwhelmed; however, I was once again drawn back to the Mass at the center of the church when I heard the beginning of the most important and beautiful part of the Mass:  the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.   Surrounded by two Nuns as well as several other devout Catholics, we all kneeled in honor of Christ’s presence.   At this moment, I felt so much joy and happiness that I was moved to tears.  Never before had I witnessed something so beautiful.  I continued participating in Mass, with my joy increasing with every second.  Unfortunately, my friend came to find me to let me know that everyone was ready to go but we just couldn’t manage to pull ourselves away.  Reluctantly, I turned and headed towards the doors, but I just couldn’t leave yet. Everything I looked at in the Basilica brought me so much joy, the beautiful frescoes on the ceilings, the Holy Water Fountain, the sight of so many pilgrims. I could have spent hours in St. Peter’s Basilica praying, learning, and taking in the beauty, but our tight tourist schedule wouldn’t allow for that, so I finally took a deep breath and exited walking out into the sunny St. Peter’s Square.

  I knew the Vatican was going to be a great spiritual experience for me as a devout Catholic, but what I experienced was unreal.  It is unfortunate, due to Mass going on when we visited, that I was not able to visit more of the important areas of the basilica such as St. Peter’s Tomb, the grottoes which hold the tombs of all of the Popes, or the Statue of St. Peter whose foot is worn down from so many pilgrims kissing it upon their arrival. However, what I did see and experience was more than I ever expected. Visiting while Mass was going on, made the experience come to life for me! During my trip, I just got a small taste of the vast beauty of the Catholic Church in Italy. But it has just left me craving more.  Visiting the Vatican was the absolute best part of my entire trip.  I never dreamed it would have such an impact on me.  I hope can someday share this experience with my mom as she is the one who has taught me so much about my faith. 

Being in Italy during  Holy Week certainly allowed me to fulfill the PRAY aspect of my journey.  Coming up next: LOVE in which I describe the love I have developed for the Italian people and retell the countless times they welcomed us foreigners like we were family as well as the love I developed for my travel companions.

Two Lira’s in Madrid

9 Jul

With my time left in Madrid and Europe rapidly coming to a close, I am beginning to realize that there is a high possibility that the term “reverse culture shock” may actually be true. How could I possibly feel out-of-place in my home country? I haven’t really been gone that long, have I? The warnings about this difficulty of re-assimilating into the USA seemed to be a bit silly when our coordinators warned us about it in our re-entry workshop. However, the realization that it is true really hit me when my mom came to visit. This was the first time my mom had ever left the USA, so as you can imagine, everything in Spain was new and exciting to her. Touring her around Spain all week really made me realize just how different our two cultures really are. After being in Spain for so long, things that once seemed so foreign to me now seemed like the norm. But to my mom, some of these cultural experiences were downright weird to her. I didn’t know I had adjusted my perceptions quite so much until I saw my mom’s reactions.

1) Walking on the Street It about drove her crazy that people didn’t walk on the right side of the street, instead it is a haphazard mess of walk-where-you-want-to. It didn’t even phase me, but seeing that it bothered my mom so much I began to realize just how much more effective the US’s system of sidewalk etiquette really is. It really doesn’t surprise me because Spain never scores high in efficiency. People don’t seem to be in as big of hurry here, so having someone walking in front of you is really no big deal.

2) ¿ Lo Siento? Another aspect that really bothered my mom was the fact that very few people apologize for bumping into you. I never really thought about this, however, I could tell every time someone would hit her she would look at the person waiting for them to say something, which of course, they rarely did so. I am sure I was the same way, but I have just gotten used to it. The combination of the Spaniards lack of personal space and being in a big city makes apologizes for bumping into you seem silly and certainly unnecessary. I have often heard that many find Americans to be over apologetic.

3) Ok, I was ready to order 15 minutes ago… Perhaps one of the hardest things for my mom to adjust to was the lack of service at restaurants. Americans are used to being able to sit down at a restaurant and have a waiter waiting on them hand and foot for the duration of the meal. Waiting for even ten minutes to be served is a guarantee for a reduced tip. However, because tipping is not a norm in Spain, waiters have no real desire to do an excellent job, as their pay will not be effected based on the customer opinion. This combined with the relaxed lifestyle of the Spaniards leads to rather slow table service. I remember my first meal. It lasted over 2 hours, so I knew my mom was going to be in for some culture shock, but what astounded me was how much of a difference there was between the two of us in patience with waiting for service. In the US, I never would have said I was more patient than my mom, in fact, I would have said the opposite. However, after living the Spanish Lifestyle for five months, I couldn’t believe how impatient my mom seemed. But it wasn’t her that changed, it was me!

4) Don’t you know smoking kills? We all know that smoking is much more common in Europe that in the US. Almost everyone is lighting up when they have the opportunity. I would compare it to the 50’s in the States in which it was the cool thing to do. However, smoking is fairly rare in the US and luckily we are not around cigarette smoke very often due to new laws preventing smoking in many public areas. I hate cigarette smoke, but apparently not as much as I used to. The smell that once gave me a headache is now just another part of my life. It still bothers me, but not nearly to the extent it did in the US. My mom, however, often found the smoky smell to be downright awful. We would be eating dinner and she would pick up on the smell of smoke and comment on it when it hadn’t even really crossed my mind to be bothersome.

5) My meal is staring me in the eye… And the food. To an American much of the food eaten in Spain is appalling. But not to an American who has lived in Spain for some time. I never thought of my Mom as a picky eater, but I was shockingly surprised at what she wouldn’t try. She had her heart set on getting Paella( a typical Spanish rice and seafood/meat dish) until she saw a picture with large shrimp with heads still attached and mussels in their shells. Suddenly she decided that pasta seemed a whole lot more appealing. I ended getting the paella and she did try some of it, but still didn’t have the desire to sample the more exotic seafood. But she did indeed give it a shot and liked the rice part at least. Perhaps one of the funniest expressions she made was when she ordered sea bass and it was served as a whole fish. Not even the head, tail, or bones were removed. When it was set in front of her, my reaction, was “Wow that looks great! I kind of wish I had ordered that.” Expecting my mom to be just as excited as me, I was a little confused when her face turned to horror as she realized a dead fish that was staring back at her was her meal. I gave her some tips on how to eat it and she reluctantly dove in. She said it was good, but I think that gross fish head sitting on her plate kind of ruined the meal for her.

010  6) That’s all the coffee I get? Yes mom, coffee here is really, really small. No Venti sizes here(unless of course, you break down and go to Starbucks). Although it was small, she couldn’t get enough of the café con leches( espresso with steamed milk). And because they were so small, she encouraged getting one multiple times throughout the day. One day, I did treat her to a very American grande sized Starbucks coffee.

I don’t mean to be hard on my mom and peg her as someone uncultured or ignorant. Her being here helped me see the Spanish culture as I most likely saw it when I first arrived. Although my mom’s reactions to some aspects of the culture surprised me, I really couldn’t expect her to act differently. My five month absence did not make her extra sensitive to people being rude, extra picky about food, or impatient. She was the same person. It was me that has changed. I guess since my mom and I were always so similar to each other I expected her to still be just like me, but there is something about living abroad that changes a person. I am not the same Mandi Lira as when I left. Spain has changed me. Reverse culture shock is going to happen. I got small whiff of it by having my mom around, I can only imagine how much stronger it will be when I get home.

Having a whole week to show my mom my life in Madrid was perhaps one of the best weeks of the whole experience. This was the first time that my mom and I had really spent so much quality alone time. It was great having a buddy constantly with me to talk to and share my feelings. And I had so much pride in welcoming her to my city. Never before have I lived somewhere that was all mine. Not even at Purdue as both of my parents went there, so the university is just as much theirs as mine. I got to show her how I had not only survived, but thrived in this huge metropolitan city. And not to mention that it was quite fun showing off my new Spanish skills.

Despite the challenge of assimilating to some aspects of the culture this is what my mom said she loved about the country:

“the neat tidy streets, the lack of litter, the fresh pastries, the feeling of nice china with every cup of cafe, the warm embraces when you meet someone, the elderly walking tenderly and lovingly hand in hand, the young walking the elderly, the graceful walking in high-heeled shoes, the modest, neat attire of the young, the politeness shown to the elderly on the metro, the well-behaved dogs wandering around without barking or scaring people, and the children playing ball in the streets and courtyards everywhere( I loved watching the kids and reinforcing that kids are kids wherever we go)”.

The bottom line is that a new culture is just that…new and with something new there are going to be parts that are great and some parts that take time to adjust. Note: Although I am home now, I wrote this blog before I left Spain, but am just now posting it.

No Wonder My Italian Grandpa Is So Nice: eat. pray. LOVE.

20 Apr

LOVE.  As if EAT and PRAY didn’t sum up this trip well enough, LOVE is going to do the trick.  The amount of love I felt this week was unreal.  Love coming from both the local Italians and my travel companions as the entire 12 days were filled with this great virtue.  Let me first start by telling you the numerous stories of how we felt loved and cared for by the many local Italians we met on our journey.  They often say it’s not about what you saw but who you met.  I couldn’t agree with that more as the stories I am about to tell you will always hold a special place in my heart.

After arriving by train to Venice, we had some struggles getting to our hotel.  We had the simple instructions of take bus 10 from right outside the train station all the way to the hotel.  Easy enough right?  Well we waited for the 10 bus for a long time and we finally tried to ask for help but it was hard because we couldn’t speak Italian.  We finally got instructions to walk about 15 minutes to a different bus stop in which when we finally arrived we had to wait almost an hour.  When we finally got on, and thought we were well on our way, the bus driver informed us that we were actually going the wrong direction so we had to get off and wait for the other bus. Finally, we got on the right bus but the driver told us we have to get on another bus in a couple stops…WHAT??  So we asked a guy who knew decent English for help.  He didn’t know where our hotel was but he knew that if we got off in front of another hotel in the town we would be pretty close.   We seemed to be driving out to the boonies. It didn’t help that our new friend mentioned that the literal translation of the town we were staying in meant “place of no laughter” Yikes!  We finally got to the town and were relieved to find it to be a very cute and quaint place to be. However, when we asked for directions at another hotel, the lady was so helpful and made a phone call to  get us directions.  Despite her kindness, she came back with some bad news…we were 5 km away!   So we started our hike.  We didn’t make it very far until we decided we needed better directions so we stopped and asked some guys standing outside of a restaurant.   They were so kind to us and gave us great directions and even drew us a map!  Needless to say we finally arrived.  Despite our struggle getting there, we were truly able to experience how kind-hearted all the Italians were. We had already met three incredible Italians and we had only been in that glorious country for 12 hours!  Little did we know that this would be the first of many times the locals would treat us so kindly.   In fact, later that night we were in for an extra special treatment of Italian kindness.

 If you recall from my EAT part of the blog, in Venice we ate at that small restaurant and got served microwavable meals.   Despite getting not-so-great food, what the place lacked in culinary skills it made up for with good company.  As we walked in, an older lady heard us speaking English and practically leaped from her seat to come greet us and help us order.   At first we were a bit taken aback because she butted right into our conversation and started telling us all kinds of facts about Italy. Needless to say, we ended up sitting down at the table next to her.   After she helped us order our food, we got to talking.  Sandra, or Sandy as her American friends call her, told us all about her life.  As it turns out, she used to live in Florence and worked at a Jewelry Store that had a lot of American customers which explains why her English was almost flawless.  When we informed her that our next destination was Florence she got really excited and started telling all the best places in the city: where she worked, the best gelato, where to get the most delicious pastries, the best places to shop, she went on and on.  She was so excited that we were going to be there that she promised us that if we came back the next day she would prepare a list of everything for us to do in Florence.   We were a bit reluctant to say yes because we had plans of spending the whole day in downtown Venice and we really didn’t want to pay for another microwave meal.  I mean we are in Italy…I could have cooked that meal in 5 minutes at Purdue.  However, we just could not turn down this sweet lady so we promised we would be back.  But before we left, she asked if she could have our address so we could write to each other in the future and bought us all a rose! How sweet!  

After a full day of touring the waterways of Venice, we were all so exhausted but set back out to go find Sandra.  As promised, she was sitting at the same table waiting on us.  She greeted us with a hug and surprised us all when she remembered each of our names.  Of course, she had her long list of unique Florentine places and activities for us to visit.   We stayed and talked to her for a while.  This time the topic mostly concerned cooking.  She told us the secret to making a delicious meat sauce as well as gave us warnings sign for low-quality food.  She even promised to mail us an Italian cookbook so we could cook authentic Italian food at home!  How many random people do you know would be willing to pay international shipping fees to send a book  to group of college students you just met?  Only in Italy!  The only thing I couldn’t figure out is if she was such a food expert why she returned to this bad restaurant night after night.  I think she just liked the people and enjoyed the company.   We said our goodbyes and made a vow to find as many of Sandra’s recommendations as possible.

When we got to Florence, we did just that.  The entire trip was like a giant scavenger hunt trying to find Sandra’s recommendations.  We even went into her jewelry shop and said hi to her old co-workers.  Of course, they all welcomed us with open arms and said how much they all loved working with Sandra.   We took pictures everywhere that we found and are going to print them and send them to her as a thank you. 

In Rome, we were not sure what to expect from the people.  We thought maybe they wouldn’t be quite as friendly seeing as Rome is a huge metropolitan city.  However, to our surprise Rome still had that small town charm that all of the other cities possessed.  Of course, the people there treated us wonderfully, especially on my birthday( yes I was lucky enough to celebrate my 21st birthday in Roma).  When we went out to dinner, the waitress brought me an adorable birthday cake with a candle and everything.  I had no idea they did this outside of the States!  But that was nothing in comparison to what was to come.  After, we went to get gelato (yes I ate two deserts that night…come on it was my birthday and it was Italian desserts.  Why not?)  When my friend mentioned that it was my birthday the worker said,  “It’s your birthday?  You know what that means?  You have to come and scoop your own gelato!”  COOL!!  So I went behind the glass case and pretended I was a local working at a gelateria.  No big deal.  The real workers let me try any flavor I wanted…and there was a lot.  They told me to watch them scoop first so I could “learn”.  I was thinking…pssh how hard can it be?  To my surprise when I finally took the scoop in my hand, I don’t think I could have looked less skilled.  The hazelnut creamy confection was going everywhere besides in my cone.  They noticed I was struggling and thought an employees hat might help, so he gave me his hat.  Unfortunately, the secret was not in the hat and I had to resort to them to help me get my cone to look normal.  When I tried to give the hat back, they told me to keep it!  I now am a proud owner of an authentic Roman gelateria hat. Of course, the next day we went back.  Our same “ gelato friends” were working…hatless I might add.  This time after we sat down with our ice cream they suddenly came out with a little birthday cake and candle and start playing “Happy Birthday” in Italian over the speakers.  It wasn’t even my birthday anymore!  How sweet of them!

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The Italians were so nice to all of us.  I understand now why my Italian Grandpa is so giving and kind(and why he is always trying to feed us).  It’s his Italian genes!  Although this trip allowed me to LOVE all Italian people, it also gave me time to LOVE my travel companions.  Spending 12 days with any one group of people can be tough especially if there are any strong personalities in the group.   However, instead of getting on each other nerves as time went on, we all got a lot closer.   I cannot tell you the number of times we had really deep conversations about each other lives over dinner or on our balcony overlooking Florence.   Every conversation led me to love these people I was spending time with more and more!  I especially was grateful for how they all treated me on my birthday.  I was sad that I couldn’t talk to my family for the first time on my birthday but they did everything they could to make my day perfect.  First they all chipped in and bought me a gorgeous shirt that I had been eyeing when we were in Venice but couldn’t afford it.   They bought it when I wasn’t around and carried it with them all week!  How sneaky!   Then they took me out for dinner and paid for everything!  I really have some great friends.  I have heard you never know who your true friends are until you travel with them…well I would say all of my friends passed the test with flying colors. 

LOVE….what a great way to describe my Italian trip.  I LOVED the people. I LOVED the sights. But most of all I LOVED the experience.    Italy was everything I imagined plus more.  EAT. PRAY. LOVE. ITALY 2012!

 What do you think?  Next big Academy Award winner?

EAT PRAY LOVE (Arrivaderci Italia)

13 Apr

Eat. Pray. Love.  Although the character in this famous movie and book had to travel to three countries to accomplish these three tasks, I completed them all during my short time in Italy.  I may not have a movie-worthy story, but what I experienced is pretty outstanding. In my first excursion out of Spain, I was able to double the amount of countries, cities, and cultures I had previously experienced.  The gondolas and waterways in Venice; the Tuscan Sun, Medici Family Palace, and Vineyards of Florence; the hiking the untouched Italian Riviera in Cinque Terre; the tower in Pisa; and the Colosseum, Vatican , and mopeds of Roma made this trip unforgettable. However, the story does not lie in what I saw and did, but rather what I experienced.

Being of Italian descent, I was on a mission to connect with the Italian culture and learn about the place my great-grandparents lived.  It is hard to explain, but I felt such a connection with the culture.  It was part of me.  Although the only clues that I am Italian are my dark skin and my last name, I still felt like I was going back to my roots.  This is where my family started years ago.  Italian and proud, I was ready to explore my homeland.

EAT…Let me start with the most cliché part of Italy: the food!   Let me tell you, it puts Olive Garden to shame.  I never have eaten so many great plates of food in such a concentrated amount of time.  Our first meal during our layover in Bologna was unreal.  Known as the food capital of Italy, we knew we were in for a treat.  That restaurant is when I fell head over heels in love with Italy.   My 5 Euro pizza shocked us all when it was served.  It was the size of a dominos XL pizza…granted the crust was thinner, but still!  As I dug in I knew there was no way I was going to go back to Spain weighing the same.  Every time I sat down, I gained a new appreciation for the miraculous cooking methods of these Italian chefs.  Every time we were served, our group would take a bite of our own meal and then play “pass the plate” in which we literally sent our food around the table so we could all get a taste. Some of my favorites were Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon,  Tortellini with Prosciutto and Cream,  Eggplant and Pecorino Cheese Panini, Risotto con cream y vino,  and Pesto on Pasta in the town in which this basil sauce was invented.  Of course my curious mind had to try some of the strange specialties of the area.  I tried Florentine Tripa( Cow Stomach stew), Ox Tail, Wild Boar, Cuttle Fish Pasta that was black from the squids ink, anchovies, zucchini flowers, and Roman Artichokes and Polenta(a corn meal mush with meat and tomato sauce).  The polenta had a special significance to me because it is my dad’s favorite food. He comes from an Italian family and when my great grandma made polenta he would act like a little kid on Christmas.  I never liked it when I was younger, but decided I should give it a try, in honor of my Italian heritage.  As it turns out it was one of my favorite meals!  I guess my dad’s family wasn’t so crazy after all.  To my surprise some of the most common Italian food was not really part of the Italian meal…just an American twist on the classic.  For example I did not see one breadstick the entire time, nor did any menu have fettuccine with grilled chicken, and the only time we saw spaghetti and meatballs was on the English menu at one restaurant…when we compared the English and Italian menus we discovered that this wasn’t even offered on the Italian version, they were just trying to please their American customers.

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 Despite being in Italy, we did have two not-so-great meals.  The first night, we got to our hostel late and were staying in a small town and we ended up eating at small bar run by a Chinese lady.  We ordered and our jaws about dropped when the food came out in microwavable trays…we payed five euro for a lean cuisine meal!  What? In Italy? No Way!  The other funny story was from the night I ordered duck.  I was excited to try a new meat but was once again shocked when the waiter brought out two hotdogs and a lemon.  Confused, I asked her about it and she assured me that I was eating duck.   Trust me lady, I’m an American, I know a hot dog when I see one.   However, every other meal was leaps and bounds beyond our expectations.  Italian food blows all other cuisines out of the world.  I bet you are salivating as I tell you this and I haven’t even started with the sweets.  Hello GELATO- the best invention ever.  America’s ice cream falls in the shadows of this great culinary masterpiece.  Hazelnut, cookies, nutella, mango, peach, mint, caramel cream, mascarpone, pistachio….I could go on forever.  With a gelateria on every street, it was hard to resist, which is why we didn’t. The marvelous colors of this creamy confection were piled high and calling our names though the crystal clear glass display cases.  Topping of a day of touring with a cone of gelato equals la dolce vita(the sweet life).  Italy certainly has some amazing culinary inventions.   Back in Spain, I am already going through pasta, pizza, and gelato withdrawal.

Now that I have completed the EAT part of my journey, let’s move on to the PRAY.  Stay tuned for my next blog in which I recreate my spiritual journey while spending Holy Week and Easter in this very Catholic country.

What In The World Am I Eating???

29 Feb

014I’ve been in Spain for over a month now and have refrained from doing the cliché blog about food…but here it is.  I have just had way too many interesting food encounters to not tell everyone about it.  I have loved almost all of the food here, but some of it is just so odd to me.  Getting traditional home cooked meals from my Señora, trying out food at several restaurants, and having to cook and shop for myself has been quit the culinary adventure.

Let me start by reminding my readers that eating here is just plan odd no matter what you’re eating.   First, breakfast never consists of bacon and eggs.  A Salami and Cheese sandwich or chocolate filled croissant is actually quite normal.    And don’t even get me started on the coffee.  They only have espresso machines here, so the normal “coffee” is an espresso shot mixed with warm milk.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious but sometimes I just want my black regular strength coffee.  If I’m lucky some cafe will have Cafe Americano….but that is just watered down espresso.   After breakfast, people usually eat a merienda or snack at noon which is followed by a HUGE lunch between two and four. This usually consists of a first and second course, bread, and dessert!  Next they will get drinks and tapas (appetizers) around 7 and finally eat a small dinner around 10 PM.  As you can imagine, my stomach has been quite confused lately!

My first true encounter with the Spanish style of eating was when we went to a nice restaurant for lunch.  We were scheduled to start eating at 2, so I had planned to do other things that day around 3.  Let me just say, those things did not even get started until close to five!  As I explained, lunch consists of more food than imaginable.   So we started with the salad…and sat for 30 minutes, then came the appetizer… we waited and talked….then came another appetizer.  Finally the first course came, we ate and waited some more…. and then the second course….we sat and visited…then dessert and talked some more.  Three hours later we finally left.  Wow…they were not kidding when they said Spaniards loved to have leisurely meals.

I also mentioned tapas in the daily meal.  Tapas are simply small appetizers that usually come free with a drink.  You can also buy other tapas that are meant to be shared amongst your friends.  I was able to go on a Tapas Tour in which a guide took us to some of the best Tapas places in Madrid.  We got octopus at one stop, patatas bravas at another( which are fried potato chunks that have a “spicy” sauce on them…hence the name Brave Potatoes.  I put spicy in quotes because very few people in the states would consider this spicy) and fried anchovies at another!  “Tapa-ing”, as we call it, is a great way to sample new food because it is either free or you can try a small portion for very low prices!

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Perhaps the most shocking food encounter I have had was when I went to my first market.  As you read earlier, I have to cook for myself so we went to this market that my friend’s Señora recommended.   We were greeted with strong fish stench, but we continued despite the smell.  As expected, we walked into vendors selling piles and piles of fish…some so fresh it was still alive!  The locals joke that Madrid should be called the Madrid Port because it has the best sea food in the country even though it is completely land locked.   It was certainly a culture shock to see fish eggs, sea urchins, and fish that were almost as big as me!  But the real shock came when we continued our adventure toward the carnecerias( meat shops).  We were legitimately disgusted by what we saw: whole rabbits, pig ears, whole baby pigs, and even dried blood.  Several markets were even selling ostrich eggs!  The sales man explained that you could feed five people with one egg!  Can you imagine having to be the one to snatch those eggs from momma ostrich!?  Yikes!

The food here has certainly been an adventure.  I cannot wait to try even more interesting food and try to cook it!  I have been able to watch my Spanish roommates whip up some pretty amazing food.  I always feel insufficient when I prepare a simple sandwich and salad while they prepare gourmet food such as tuna stuffed roasted eggplant or delicious pasta.  They always let me try some and insist that it is not very good while repeatedly saying: “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it!”  Trust me, I want to eat it!  It’s always delicious.  Food is an integral part of the Spaniards lives.  I had been figuring this out, but it really hit me when my roommate was complaining about how much stuff she had to do for school and how tired she was, but she still took more than 2 hours out of her day to cook and eat lunch!  You don’t mess with food here.

My Own Place: Challenges and All

23 Feb

I finally have my own place!  I moved into my very own apartment with my three Spanish roommates one week ago.  It is so fulfilling to feel like in some small way I own a piece of Madrid.  It may only be a small room for a short amount of time, but for right now it’s all mine!  Don’t get me wrong, it was nearly a tear-jerker when I had to say goodbye to my Señora.  We both loved each other so much and enjoyed each other’s company.   As I said goodbye she gave me a big hug and wished me good luck, promising me a dinner of paella and other goodies whenever I desired! 

 My new place is a much classier part of town only a 25 minute walk from the university.   And my roommates are just sweethearts.  My first night, they cooked me a traditional Spanish dinner and we all shared our first meal together, at 10 pm I might add.   This was quite the experience, I was able to converse with not too many problems, but I made use of the “smile and pretend I know what’s going on” technique more than once.   They are so patient with me and really want to help me.  Another night, their boyfriends were over and we all watched reality TV and ate pizza and drank pop…sounds so American until I mention the fact that there was tuna on the pizza!

Despite my roommates being so patient with me and wanting to help out, making the move has presented itself with a few problems.  The hardest part for me is struggling to complete tasks that would be a piece of cake back home.  For example, doing my laundry.   First lesson learned is that you don’t wait until you are out of clothes because the washer can only hold about 10 items at a time and they don’t use driers here, so your clothes really are not dry for about 2 days after you wash them and then they are wrinkly and need to be ironed.  What a process!!!  Another thing that is frustratingly difficult is learning what is and is not socially acceptable with my roommates.  Is it ok for me to walk barefoot?  Can I drink coffee in my room?  Should I change in the bathroom?   All of these social norms that I am not aware of make me seem even more different.  

Perhaps the hardest part of all is making my own food.  At home, one of my favorite things to do is grocery shop and cook.  I thought that cooking for myself would be easy, especially after shopping and planning meals for 38 other girls in my cooperative house at Purdue.  I thought if I could feed 38, I could feed one easily. Well, I’m surviving, but all I’ve made thus far is sandwiches and salads…not exactly culinary masterpieces.  It’s certainly not that I don’t know how to cook, it just that I feel limited because I’m not sure how to make the best things out of what is offered at the market.  And shopping is a whole different experience here.  There are markets which have super fresh food as their specialty.  For example there are meat markets, seafood markets, and fruit and veggie markets.  I started my shopping at one of these and was overwhelmed by how many odd things I encountered (stay tuned for my next blog about interesting Spanish food to learn more).  After, we went to the actual grocery store.  The groceries here are a lot like the ALDI back home.   There is only one brand of everything and you have to bring your own bags. When I got there, I was at a loss about what to buy.  I wanted to make Mexican food, but wait…they don’t have salsa.  I wanted to get peanut butter, but wait…that is only sold at American stores.  How about some fish…oh wait it still has its bones and skin.   I think I spent half of my time trying to figure what everything was, and the other half trying to figure out how to prepare it.   I think I wondered around the little store at least 3 times.    I eventually managed to fill my little box on wheels with some random food and checked out, not thinking about the fact that I had to carry all of this three blocks to my home…needless to say I made it home but not without my bags breaking and my food spilling onto the sidewalk.

 It’s such a terrible feeling when you feel like you have regressed in knowledge because you cannot complete simple tasks.  But let me tell you, the feeling of joy, success, and pride, is indescribable when you finally do figure these tasks out.  The smile I had across my face as I walked out the grocery store was probably goofy and funny looking.  But I felt on top of the world.  I had just picked out food, talked to the workers, and didn’t make a huge fool out of myself!  It seems menial, just a small trip to the grocery, but trust me, the feeling of success was unreal.  Now the real test will be to see if I can actually cook anything substantial from what I bought.