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I have always loved the Northern Neck of Virginia. As a child, visiting that part of the state was like taking a step back in time.

My father’s side of the family had settled there in the 17th century, making it a place full of romance and mystery for me. We always seemed to visit on hot summer days. My great aunt (we called her Auntie) still lived in the old family house and always seemed to be dressed for church with stockings and a dress; her white hair pulled back in a perfectly set chignon or french twist.

My Dad would take us kids over to play with the horses (the farm used to have an old racetrack which has since turned into a strip mall), to splash in the pond (made when they needed new bricks to rebuild the burnt down house in 1836 – it is now covered by a road), and to the Dairy Queen on the corner for a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate (that at least is still there).

It was another one of those familiar hot days when we were visiting. This time not to the old family house, which had been sold when I was a teenager because my grandparents could not afford to pay the inheritance tax on the farm when my great aunt died, but to a resort close by and nestled into one of the small creeks that give the area its salt water charm. Biking around we stopped for lunch at a little cafe in Irvington, The Local. I wandered to the back to get some cream for my coffee. Suddenly I was in this place that was so familiar and so like home to me, and yet was taken back to another place that I love, but that is so far away and so different.

The sign above was posted at the coffee bar. I read it and chuckled, instantly transported back to a time when sugar was salt, and my Indian waiter could do nothing but shrug and pretend that he understood my complaint. If only he had known! He could have put me in my place and with a simple shake of his head explained, “Aguni madame. It’s only for the discerning gourmet.” I smiled, reached over and dropped a small spoonful into my cup. As I slowly stirred, I thought, “Things change. Maybe salty coffee is an acquired taste.”

1. Prepare a lightly spiced, unsweetened black tea and pour immediately into large thermos for storage
2. Gather clear glass teacup and saucer (ensuring cup is upside-down on saucer) and sugar bowl
3. Present glass, sugar, and thermos of hot tea to the table
4. Place sugar bowl off to the side and unflip the glass teacup
5. Open thermos and pour steaming tea into glass teacup

I would have expected a plaque or a statue, or maybe just a big painted sign, something to mark our arrival at the most western point in Africa. Instead, we walked into a string of small grills and lovely ladies in brightly colored batiks. Here the fresh catch of the day is the only special. You want to order it paired with fries or rice and a delicious yassa (spiced onion) sauce. Add a Gazelle and you have all the welcome you need.

Looking out to the west.

We had one full day in the holy city of Pushkar. How did it go? As any good day in India should go, full of the unexpected. This morning, the unexpected was salty coffee. (Those super fine granules at the bottom of the sugar bowl that we thought were just crushed sugar cubes – not sugar.) This afternoon, the unexpected was a Hindu prayer by one of the holiest bodies of water in India.

I had a lovely encounter with an older Sadhu during my first visit to India, that time on the banks of the Ganges. Perhaps my memories of that experience made me a little softer with this white tank top clad Brahmin priest than I otherwise might have been. The Pushkar exchange started with a gentle suggestion from priest Carlo to walk down to the ghats along the water. I had already been and so was patiently waiting for the gentleman to leave before continuing my walk back to the hotel. This, apparently, was obvious, and soon I was, with little choice otherwise, following him down to the edge of the lake.

Ignoring the stairs covered in pigeon poop, I removed my sandals and proceeded barefoot. Ignoring the trash and plastic bags floating in the green water, I took a seat on its edge. Watching and listening to Carlo chant was magical. He filled my cupped hands with water and with minimal resistance on my part I began tossing handfuls of the holy water into the lake, wishing for the long life of my family: husband, father, mother, sisters, brother, and grandparents.

As I walked home later, vermillion on my forehead, a red string on my wrist, and 100 rupees lighter (a donation of course), I thought about my unexpected events for the day: 90 rupees for salty coffee. 100 rupees for a long life full of happiness and prosperity for those closest to me. Of the two, I knew which was the better bargain.

Considering I ate here 5 times in 3 days, it’s a pretty solid favorite find. Hidden in a little alley in the old part of Fort Cochin, this café offers the best salads and soups I’ve had in India and a pleasant dose of local art. The tables, many made of old sewing machine stands and each with their own fan, meander through a series of open sided rooms and courtyards. The feeling is magical and the butter oatmeal will convince you to come back again for breakfast tomorrow.

La Dolce Vita

From this angle you might question the quality of La Dolce Vita’s pizza. Thoughts like… “maybe they put masala in the sauce?”, “perhaps the cheese is made with yak milk?”, or “is the crust really just a roti with improvised toppings?”… might pop into your head. But behind that sign is a real brick oven and in the kitchen there is the echo of beautiful northern Italian accents.  Yes, the vino is only Goan, but the menu, sauces, and service are full fledged Italian. In the small town of Agonda, where almost every restaurant has the same menu, the culinary options here are a quick breath of fresh air.

When a man from the Middle East comes to visit and brings sweets from his favorite Middle Eastern sweet shop, and that sweet shop happens to be right around the corner from your house, you have to take note. That is how I found Al Sham.

Nestled among a street full of hooka bars and Halal grocers, this unpretentious little shop offers melt-in-your mouth baklava, delicious date cookies, and creamy chocolate dipped cashew straws. Trust me, it is worth the ride to Queens.

Santa Fe has some truly charming older motels. At one time they must have been a fair distance outside of the city, but over the past few decades the city has encompassed them. We chose the Silver Saddle – by far one of the cutest hotels I have stayed at ever, and even better because it was only $45 a night. Plastered walls, a cotton quilt, and a beautifully tiled bathtub gave it all the charm I needed. Add a balcony and it would have been perfect. Oh, and I almost forgot, there is a margarita haven right around the corner.

At the Silver Saddle - In case you forget to bring your cowgirl boots, just borrow the pair by the front desk!

A couple locals had directed us to Maria’s for dinner. They mentioned that Maria’s had good margaritas if we were interested, but they left out the small fact that they offer 100 different types of margaritas — and I always thought a margarita was a boring, unchanging drink. From the outside the place looks deceptively small, but when you walk in, you’ll be greeted by a meandering collection of never ending rooms. Not to worry, margaritas are on the menu no matter where you end up sitting.