Meet The La Vega Family

The first time you meet the La Vega family of markets they’ll spin you on your heels. But once your mind adjusts to the raw juxtaposition and distinct personalities of these three siblings, you’ll smile, shake your head and murmur the only two words that make sense at that moment: “La Vega.”

The first time you meet the La Vega family of markets they’ll spin you on your heels. But once your mind adjusts to the raw juxtaposition and distinct personalities of these three siblings, you’ll smile, shake your head and murmur the only two words that make sense at that moment: “La Vega.”

Santiago, Chile

There is a simple fact of life that makes traveling to distant lands a guaranteed pleasure despite how arduous the journey or unfamiliar the place: everyone has to eat. Which leads to that always-special travel experience no matter the locale, climate or body politic: markets.

In Santiago there are markets, or ferias, in nearly every neighborhood. Some are open daily; others only on selected days each week. But of all markets in this city of 7 million one market stands in the center – like a pulsing heart through which the lifeblood of all other markets pass –  La Vega. Carrying nearly every kind of food produced in Chile, from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes; the Atacama to Patagonia; La Vega has it all. From fruit, veg, dairy, meat and fish – if La Vega doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it.

La Vega is thought of by most Satiaguinos as an area, or barrio, more than just the massive market that it is. That’s because there are actually three separate, adjacent markets here, forming a trifecta of local shopping that is referred to collectively as “La Vega.” But like any three-child family living in close quarters, La Vega is replete with classic sibling roles, distinct temperments and familial dysfunction.

La Vega Central

First there is the oldest child – La Vega Central – the namesake of the whole area whose reputation precedes him. He’s the rash, tattooed rocker whom everyone else either admires or fears. Within his enormous indoor boundaries he’s chaotic and loud, crowded and narrow, with push carts, motorcycles, and even small trucks inching their way between throngs of locals hefting bags bulging with food. From baby strollers to bicycles, rusty grocery carts to canvas pull-along trollys, all compete in the melee for passage through cramped aisles stacked high with the finest produce in the country. In every direction vendors are yelling and selling, workers whistle and hiss to get others out of the way, shoppers bark requests across glassed counters or piles of produce. All are crowded into this same vast, open-air roofed structure that covers three city blocks.

And that’s just what’s inside of big brother Vega Central. Just beyond his steel exoskeleton the chaos spills out along pocked cobblestone and concrete streets, stretching in all directions with a barrage of items on makeshift tables, in boxes or just laid out on blankets on the ground. Here you’ll find “household goods” ranging from used electronics, luggage, cookware, clothes, toys, tools and everything else that you’ve once probably tried to jettison from your own cluttered life. It’s all there, like the final outlet for every Goodwill and thrift shop in Chile. You gaze at the sea of humanity: the very rich sidestepping the crowd, perhaps working their way toward a favorite avocado seller; the every-man loading up for the coming week of subsistence dining; and the very poor, sleeping on cardboard amidst the omnipresent feral dogs and cats by a nearby sidewall.

La Vega Chica

Just across a wide street-turned-parking-lot is a second, smaller market, appropriately called La Vega Chica (“Little La Vega”). If La Vega Central is the longhaired wild child of the family, La Vega Chica is the middle, little brother wannabe who chases behind his ever-raging elder, but never quite catches up.

With similar nondescript styling as his hero next door, La Vega Chica offers a slightly more controlled market setting, with produce, meats and veg stacked high and tight along with a proud collection of tiny, scattered eateries with mismatched tables and chairs, and dishware heavy with classic Chilean and Peruvian dishes. Here the local cooked food is fresh, cheap and delicious – thought by most to be better than the hawked hot food of big brother.

That’s because sometimes it’s the #2 child who tries a little harder – and this kid is no exception, with plenty of shopping surprises up his sleeve and excellent eats to indulge in if you take the time to get to know him. But sadly, so many never meet him, already exhausted and overwhelmed by the sibling colossus to the north. But in any other town 2nd son La Vega Chica would be a main market destination in his own right, free from the total eclipse of his rockstar big bro next door. And those who make the effort to meet him are always glad they did.

Tirso De Molina

But don’t stop there. Continue through the middle child’s narrow aisles to meet the third sibling of Santiago’s main market family: Tirso De Molina. She is the youngest child, who watched and learned from her brothers’ rapscallion behavior and turned in a different, saner direction. With her post-modern multi-pyramidal roof and light-letting design, this girl-turned-lady is an artist and clearly the only family member to attend finishing school.

Inside her elegant structure are tidy, wide-open spaces lined with select vendors best known for their cheese and fruit. Upstairs are clean, rustic eateries overlooking the center courtyard below. Stalls along her spacious walkways are papered with colorful graffiti describing aromatic elixirs of fruit, vegetable, milk, ice – whatever can be pushed through a juicer or ground in a blender. The concoctions are endless, the vendors creative and the results delectable. So try something new, and take your mystery juice to one of the nearby wrought iron benches thoughtfully placed around the open center and watch the world gently slip by as you catch your breath and calm your nerves after a morning of market madness with the La Vega family. 

¡Chile’s Festival of Festivals!

Fiesta Patrias 2016, KFCox-7.jpg

Nearly every country in the world has a national festival that brings its people together for a common party. On National Day, Singapore has a grand pageant of lights, jets, fireworks and dancers celebrating their history at Marina Bay. In the US, neighborhoods across the nation hold local Independence Day parades of walkers, cyclists and patriotically-festooned wagons crowded with kids and pets pulled by parents. Polished fire trucks and police cars are on display, local dignitaries make appearances and for a day everyone puts aside their political differences, looks to the night sky for fireworks and feels pretty good about their country. It’s a beautiful thing.

Chile is no exception to such national festival fervor, celebrating Dieciocho; a three-part combination of the county’s freedom from Spanish rule, an ambiguous religious event and the unofficial beginning of Spring. The event which commemorates Dieciocho is Fiestas Patrias and it’s the festival to end all festivals in this long, slender country that I now call home. Whereas national celebrations around the world usually span a full day, Chile takes it a little more seriously – Dieciocho lasts an entire week for many people and every school, with the festivities broadcast endlessly to millions live on television and across the internet.  

Dieciocho de Septiembre

The wind-up to Dieciocho lasts for weeks, with pre-holiday sales of music, traditional red and white clothing, special pottery plates and cookware, and flags – lots and lots of flags. That’s because Dieciocho is so important in Chile that there is a law requiring every commercial building and residence to hang a Chilean flag out front. And not just any old way – it has to be hung correctly. Failure to do so can result in a multa (fine), not to mention furtive glances from disapproving neighbors.  Looking down any street, lined red and white with the nation’s symbol, it’s hard not to become patriotic yourself.

On the actual big day – dieciocho de septiembre (September 18th) – one could probably throw a brick through the window of any bank in the middle of the day and no one would notice. That’s because everything – I mean everything – is closed for this most important holiday in Chile. So like any new Chilean resident, we joined the mad rush to gas up the car, buy plenty of bread, milk and, ahem, pisco, and settled in for the big event.

Festival Food

Some local friends invited us to attend a municipal Fiestas Patrias celebration in Santiago. It was a huge, week-long festival, offering tens of thousands a glimpse into all things Chilean, including Huasos (local cowboys) in wide brimmed leather hats on horseback; unique shove-the-cow-against-the-wall kind of rodeos; local crafts; dancing; singing; and a very impressive showing of police and military might. And naturally there was plenty of food for me to gorge on. Traditional meats like beef, pork and skewered anticuchos grilling like shish kabob were everywhere. Empanadas – the national treat here – were piled along tables and food stalls, and choclo – a large-kernelled corn – roasted and popped over glowing charcoal at every turn. Wherever I went in this massive party large cups of mote con huesillo (the national libation of stewed peach and barleycorn with an entire dried peach floating inside) were lined up beside counters of terremotos – a wildly toxic concoction of sweet fermented wine and pineapple ice cream served in a liter glass. But most notably and to my great delight there was cordero. Now, as a lifelong eater of everything, few foods excite me more than a golden, full-roasted pig, a whole fish sizzling over dancing flames or a crispy little guinea pig fresh from a mud and brick oven. But the cordero of Fiestas Patrias – well – nothing prepared me for this.

The open roasting of whole lambs beside a wood fire – known as cordero al asador – comes from Patagonia to the south, where it is more a way of life than just a meal. It’s such a beloved food here that even the scattering of Chilean vegetarians drool over the thought of it.

And so it was that, through the haze of smoke, I spotted the huaso stepping gingerly around a carpet of glowing coals, throwing handfuls of coarse salt. His target: entire torsos of lamb – dozens of them – splayed out on iron rods and mesh screens leaning in toward pyres of burning logs. He paused to slice off a hunk of meat with a frighteningly-large hunting knife and handed it to me silently. Wide-eyed, I tore the meaty gift with my teeth, pink juices dribbling down my chin, as the crispy skin and succulent flavor of fresh-killed lamb exploded with carnivorous gaminess in my mouth. Some guy standing nearby eyed me, jealous, as he waited in the line snaking toward the heavy wood table where other hausos were cutting and plating meat for a paying crowd. “Maybe if you had just asked politely…” I thought with an air of conquest.

My new best friend cooking Cordero

My new best friend cooking Cordero

When I think of the Dieciocho in Santiago, celebrations like Carnival in Rio or Mardis Gras in New Orleans come to mind – but with a more reserved, Chilean characteristic. Here it’s all about the rich culture and colorful history of this remarkable country, with so much of that expressed through music, dancing and simple yet exciting cooking dating back to when the indigenous Mapuche first harnessed fire. It’s easy to see how standing among crowds of proud Chileans, chewing a slice of pure, unadulterated cordero to the traditional rhythm and beauty of the evocative Cuenca, brings the nation back to its Andean roots. And while one lamb splayed over an untamed flame is a sight to behold, many Fiestas Patrias lambs doing that in unison marks a national event worth celebrating. And it's, well, just plain sexy. ¡Viva Chile Mierda!


¡Bienvenidos! to the Other DownUnder

It’s Spring in Santiago. The Andes are still covered with snow and people walk around in coats and boots, even though it feels more like the Mediterranean than the gateway to Antarctica. It’s Chile – the Other Down-Under on the other side of the earth. And I have just arrived.

After five fabulous years living in Singapore and exploring Southeast Asia, we repatriated to the US for two years before admitting that, well, we didn’t want to repatriate. It was time to leave again; time to find another place, different from Singapore, but equally interesting and enriching. So here we are – Chile. “It’s the Singapore of South America,” we were told, and the capital city of Santiago gives proof to this reputation. Skyscrapers, including the tallest on the continent, gleam like silver redwoods in the foreground of the snowcapped Andes cordillera, giving it the nickname “Sanhattan.”  Here the roadways are well maintained, the water is drinkable from any tap and prices are clearly marked. It’s a city steeped in history and architecture amid cutting edge technology, style and, of course, great food.

“But if you really want to see Chile, you have to get out of Santiago,” a new friend told me. Where Santiago is sleek, bustling and pulsing with the lifeblood of the economy, just an hour or so out of town reveals a quieter side of Chile. Smaller places with open-air markets, dogs sleeping beneath cars and people of little pretension cooking food outdoors. So I met my friend in one of these places – the town of Quilpue – to explore the Winter food scene. An old man pointed to an uncomfortably narrow spot to squeeze my car into and promised to watch it. And we were off!

Walking through the market at Quilpue, rows of crowded booths sold everything from clothes to old tools and housewares and repackaged paper products. But the market is best known for its produce, drawing from the world-renowned breadbasket that is Chile. Rows of fruits, vegetables, nuts and homemade concoctions crowded the walkways in a kaleidoscope of color. Avocados glowed green among striated red apples, dried orange peaches and a vast assortment of herbs, pumpkins, melons and peppers. The selections seemed endless, each stall offering something better or bigger than the one before it.

And there was food, lots of food. Young men stood by charcoal grills sizzling with anticucho – cubes of skewered, marinated pork and beef heart; women sold juices squeezed by hand to order; an old lady baked hot empanadas filled with stewed beef, onions, cheese and black olives in the back of her van.

A butcher sliced off a slab of arrollado huaso – a head cheese-like roll of meat scraps and spices tied in pork skin and boiled tender. The meaty flavors and spices exploded in my mouth, making me wish for a smear of blazing red pebre (Chile’s go-to hot chili paste) on a soft disc of the ubiquitous pan amasado, flat bread made with flour and lard and baked in a brick oven. I ate my way through the market, each vendor happily pushing food on me and smiling “¡Disfruta!” (Enjoy!), promising: “Just wait until summer when the food’s really good!”

Arrollado Huaso

Arrollado Huaso

I came upon the seafood area – unadorned stalls laden with local bounty from the coast just 40 minutes away. Hunks of swordfish, tuna, sea bass, kingfish and huge ocean sunfish speckled silver and red.

Stacks of razor clams sat beside piles of thick, round abalone, oysters and scallops. Nearby, half an oil drum set atop an old shopping cart served as a grill, with a chunk of fish sizzling beside mussels the size of my hand, opening with puffs of briny steam. The fishmonger insisted I tear off a piece of fish and slurp down a mussel on the half.

fresh abalone

And so my food adventures in Chile begin. There’s just one little catch: Spanish. Not a problem, I thought, I’ve been mumbling my way around Latin America for years. But it seems the tourist zone of the Riviera Maya is different from the real world of Chile – infamous for its rapid-fire speech, cut-off words and Chilenismos – an unintelligible slang. But even though I may speak Spanish like a five-year-old today, every week I’ll get a year older. And better able to discover the wonder of the Other Down-Under.

Please bookmark or subscribe to FoodWalkers and follow me as I eat my way through South America - it isn't always pretty, but it's always interesting!

Flat & Fabulous: Singapore's classic Indian friedbreads

Let’s face it, when considering Singapore’s lineup of fantastic food, flat bread is not the first thing that comes to mind. But in truth, fried Indian flatbreads are among the most popular foods here, ranging from simple flour/water ingestibles to complex-flavored creations of eye-popping beauty. In Singapore and Malaysia they fall into the three general categories below. From there they go off into a gastronomic world of options. But it all begins with that simplest, most basic of all Indian flatbreads: the roti prata. 

Praise the prata

If you've walked more than a couple of blocks in Singapore you've seen it stretched like pizza dough, slapped on greasy metal counters and tossed like a Frisbee onto hot griddles. It’s the remarkable roti prata, falling under any number of names, such as paratha, roti canai or simply prata. This fried, flat miracle of bread originated in the Channai region of Southern India centuries ago and has since spread via Malaysia throughout the region; most notably to Singapore.

Roti prata is a simple food; just an insipid-looking disc of flour, water, salt and sugar. What makes it special is the dramatic stretching and snapping of the dough. With almost instinctive movement, a skilled prataman pulls, flips and manipulates the slick, oil-brushed lump into a thin veil before folding and frying it on a hot griddle until golden. The resulting round, fused layers of unleavened bread is then “clapped” between the hands to fracture its crispy outer surface and soften the chewy insides. It is round, simple and always served with a side of curry gravy for dipping. It's a thing of beauty.

Pratamen at work

There’s not much more to it than that – until you consider the delicate, flakey and almost-but-not-quite-burned hue and toasty flavor of the bread. Perhaps it’s the beauty of simplicity that makes this rustic bread so popular. Or maybe it’s the “comfort food” factor: warm golden bread dipped in rich, savory gravy, eaten slowly, deliberately, and washed down with a sweet morning teh tarek. It’s a reassuring meal to start the day, and for so many here it does more than merely nourish their bodies; it helps hold their lives together.

Coin prata - silver dollar-sized sensation

classic roti prata - breakfast of champions.

The mighty murtabak

A step beyond the simple prata is its flavor-crammed cousin, the murtabak. Best described as a “roti prata on steroids,” this distinctly Muslim Indian food is made from roti prata dough which is stretched and pulled into a tissue paper thin skin and reinforced with a pre-cooked prata placed in the middle. Sort of like a plate within the wrapper, the inside is coated with a raw egg and stuffed with chopped onion and a choice of filling. The skin is folded into an overlapped square, enveloping the tasty stuffing, and slid onto an oiled griddle to brown. The edges are crispy and flaky, but your teeth break through into soft, slightly chewy layers of cooked bread and well-seasoned fillings. A thin dal or a mutton curry with robust, spicy flavors rounds out the flavor experience.

Some murtabak are so large they fold them over to fit the plate.

Murtabaks are often found in the same establishments as roti prata, but oddly the reputations of those restaurants center only around the one dish or the other. Which suggests that perhaps it’s the flavor of the fillings that separate the prata professional from the murtabak master. Those fillings typically include minced mutton, chicken or sardines, but today’s young cooks are creating new variations of murtabak breakthroughs, including egg, exotic cheese, wild mushrooms, masala, fruit, chocolate, Nutella and even ice cream. Roti prata – so much lighter and delicate than its counterpart – is more fashionably a breakfast food, whereas the murtabak is a hungry-man meal in itself, usually reserved for later in the day

Making murtabaks

The Delicate Dosai

If roti prata is the strong, silent first-born and murtabak the boisterous little brother, then dosai is the attention-seeking baby sister with dreams of stardom and admiration by all. Large, flat and delicate as lace, the dosai (also called dosa or thosai) is both genteel and flamboyant at the same time. She’s the debutante that everyone notices; the dish for which all others are pushed aside to make room. She is, indeed, the Big Show.

Paper Dosai

But the dear dosai is not just a pretty face. Beneath her thin veneer of tanned, crispy skin is a crepe-like batter of ground lentils and rice flour, fermented just enough to impart a slight sourness and tingle to the mouth. A staple dish in much of South India and Sri Lanka, dosai is popular throughout the day and healthier than her flat bread brethren. The batter is protein rich, gluten-free and loaded with vitamins B and C. It’s also laden with carbohydrates while containing no salt, sugar or saturated fats.

Masala Dosai

But the real beauty of the dosai is in her seductive shape – a structural wonder worthy of applause, both for the creation itself and the cook who achieves it without breakage. The batter is ladled onto a hot griddle to form an enormous pancake. Flipping it demands one fluid motion, following which the chef bends, folds or rolls the massive, paper-thin crepe into its final form, which within seconds can harden to brittle permanence. The smoothness of the gentle folds reveals the expertise of the chef who makes it look so simple – just a relaxed turn of the wrist – tempting foolhardy wannabes into believing they can do it, too. But some things just need to be left to the pros.

Dosai come in many variations of batter, fillings and texture: crisp or soft, stuffed or hollow, fan-shaped, half moon or rolled like a scroll half a metre long. The pastry is both crispy and soft at the same time, and they’re always served overhanging the edges of a thali plate or banana leaf with 3 dipping sauces: chili, coconut chutney and sambar. But the fun only starts there, with constantly-evolving variations of new masterpieces – like chili crab dosai – or countless variations of dosai desserts, their fragile golden frames filled with fruit, sweets and ice cream. But when first discovering the dosai, be sure to meet the king and queen of the ball before all others: the ladylike paper dosai – so simple and refined, and the masculine masala dosai – rolled like a mysterious map leading you to a land of exotic savory goodness.

Delicate fan dosa with sweet exotic fruit and savory dip.

So right up there with Singapore's iconic foods, like Chili Crab and Chicken Rice, are Indian Flatbreads. Hey, no big surprise, right? They may, after all, be the most ubiquitous food on the planet – eaten by nearly every culture –  so why should Singapore be an exception. And if you haven’t tried one yet you should just close your browser and rush out to get one now!

Island Passages -- a peek through St. Croix's windows, walkways and doors.

A typical colonial 5-foot way in  christiansted, St. Croix.

Foodwalking around St. Croix in the beautiful US Virgin Islands is not just about food; it's like a walk back in time. One can almost hear the sounds of long-gone colonialism that wreaked this once sugar-producing center controlled by so many - - most notably the Danish. It's romantic in a Pirates Of The Caribbean sort of way, which of course defies the brutally harsh history of this and so many other slave states along the chain of islands that form this region. That history should never be forgotten as one of humanity's darkest periods. But today the infrastructure supporting the colonialist encroachment on local Crucians has been repurposed into gorgeous shops, restaurants, museums and public spaces that a visitor can admire and embrace. And what grabs you first are the passageways -- walkways, windows and doors -- all over the island. It is one of the most well-preserved places to see the lasting beauty of colonial architecture in these islands. So follow me on this visual tour of a few.


COUNTLESS Arches  support St. Croix's passages along many streets in Christiansted.



The "5-Foot way" is a BREEZEWAY beneath the arched fronts of old colonial buildings, GIVING releif from sun and rain -- Usually about 5 feet wide.



for views, and breeze and light, the old windows of St. Croix offer a unique view of the world.



many old doors and tunnels lead to reminders of St. Croix's tragic history

Passageway to the sky from inside a St. Croix sugar mill.

Eating St. Croix

St. Croix's north coast

The email popped up on my screen when I least expected it: “Would you like to explore and write about the inaugural Dine VI Restaurant Week celebrating the local food of St. Croix, US Virgin Islands?” Winter was fast approaching and I suddenly felt ravenous for island food. So my reply was concise: “Hells Yes!

A beach at The BUCCANEER

St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. The name alone evokes idyllic images of pristine beaches, swaying palms, cold cocktails with fancy umbrellas. But there is so much more to this triplet sister in the family of paradise islands that form the US Virgin Islands. It’s not just the turquoise blue of the Caribbean in front of stunning hotels; it’s the people – Crucians – who hold their society dear and work hard to at once both preserve and advance their uniqueness. And a proud part of what makes this place special? The food.

Danish archituecture prevails in Christiansted

Not long after checking into the iconic Buccaneer Resort I headed into St. Croix’s main event: Christiansted. Here the Caribbean laps against a quay at water’s edge beside the yellow glow of the town’s namesake fort. Old cobblestone streets lead to many small eateries beneath colored archways of stone and coral dating back to 19th century Danish colonialists. Wafting aromas of spice and curry pulled at me as I searched for pastel paintings of NBA star Tim Duncan on an outside wall. “Just ask anyone about the place with the basketball player,” I was told. And it’s true; everyone knows Harvey’s.

 At Harvey’s Restaurant the mismatched tablecloths and potpourri of pictures are unapologetically authentic. Equally local is the outstanding food, such as Stew Goat in coconut-curry broth, Pot Fish swimming in an earthy sour gravy, or the favored Old Wife – a fish stew replete with bones, sandpaper skin and remarkable flavor.  Sides of “provisions” including fungi – a cornmeal and okra mash – complete every plate. And for the fruity burn of scotch bonnet sauce, Mrs. Harvey will guide you to its ethereal meaning.

Stew goat

The magnificent Mrs Harvey

It doesn’t take long before you sense an energy – electric in the air – that is spinning around the food of St. Croix.  It’s a culinary renaissance that’s all about local cuisine. And Dine VI Restaurant Week is leading it, encompassing more than thirty dining options highlighting the best of street food, forever-old local cuisine and high-end “New Crucian” cooking. This gustatory explosion has already attracted the attention of the James Beard Foundation and chefs throughout the Americas. Now everybody wants to be part of what’s cooking in St. Croix.

Even the food trucks are pulling in, and at the first-ever Frederiksted Food Truck Festival more than a dozen lined the main drag of St. Croix’s second city between the colonial architecture and a grassy park slipping into the sea. From homemade mace and nutmeg ice cream to local fried fish, jerk chicken, goat roti and latino specialties, the food at this first-time festival surpassed all expectations. Local island musicians like Pressure raised the street party of more than a thousand people to a fever pitch as a common, excited whisper swept through the crowd: “Just wait until next year when this will be REALLY big.”

the first-ever Frederiksted Food Truck Festival

The thing about St. Croix that makes it stand apart from many Caribbean destinations is that the people here welcome the tourist dollar but do not live for it, so the exploding world of food is designed more for Crucians than for tourists. Which explains why the new Cast Iron Pot Restaurant is in a repurposed building along an inland artery of local businesses. One taste of Chef Burton Peterson’s curried goat, slow-roasted pork or marinated whole fish and I began to understand how talented chefs are doing new things with old recipes in order to carry them forward into the future without leaving their Crucian past behind.

Pot fish at Cast iron Pot by Chef Burton Peterson

Part of that past has Hispanic origins, and Villa Morales embraces those flavors. Open to the island’s deep interior, the food focuses on local ingredients and technique with a splash of robust Latino rhythm. Like the Conch Cooked 2 Ways – a battle of sublime Crucian and Latin tastes held at bay by the most tender of rice and yucca. Crazy.

To miss St. Croix’s local food in its local settings is to miss St. Croix’s soul. Still, tourists hungry for elegance are not ignored and at Zion Modern Kitchen the food is distinctly upscale and continental, with local ingredients adorning every gorgeous plate without any need for special effects of stacked towers and flavored foam. But it’s the bar here that really excites, where twenty-something master mixologist, Frank Robinson defies his youth by the drinks he concocts. The corners of his eyes narrow as he asks about your palate and you realize it’s time to get serious. You might answer with a conflicting “savory, spicy heat and warming Asian essence with cooling fruitiness that’s a little sweet, kind’a sour but not bitter or cloying.” “Cool,” he’ll say, glancing at his homemade fermented infusions. He’ll mix, taste, mix some more and then slide a tallboy across the thick wooden bar, “Give this a try.” And in one sip you’ll taste his magic: fire and ice, love and war, frivolity with a hint of longing nostalgia. And just as you name your drink “My life in a glass,” Frank might grin and ask, “ So what’s next?” And you’ll realize it’s gonn’a be a long night.

master mixologist frank robinson

Dine VI Restaurant Week was an odyssey of St. Croix’s flavor profiles, from Blue Water Terrace’s remarkable fried chicken and elevated view of Buck Island off the coast,

to healing gospel-singing seafood brunches by the beach.

From johnny cakes and salt fish for breakfast, sunset wine parties

and sticking my fingers in a gush of unfiltered Cruzan Rum straight from the distillery’s oak barrels.

But more than just showcasing some of St. Croix’s great restaurants with astonishingly inexpensive prix-fix menus, Dine VI revealed the magic of Crucian food and the people who cook it. The tastes offered at this inaugural event – sure to more than triple in size next year – reminded me that the excitement of today’s good-food explosion is not within the purview of just the world’s iconic cities, but also of smaller places like St. Croix, where culture rather than glitz is the guiding principle and the food is made by the people, for the people. And it will knock your socks off.


The US Virgin Islands are an international destination and offers more than the usual antiseptic hotels and predictable food found elsewhere. So plan your next visit during Dine VI Restaurant Week 2016, when it expands into a month-long event on all three of the US Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. Don’t miss this special place and its outstanding cuisine. For information click over to:

Now That's Italian! A Foodwalk down Arthur Avenue in the Bronx

I recently took a foodwalk with a couple of my favorite fellow foodwalkers to explore what is known by many as New York's real Little Italy and referred to simply as "Arthur Avenue." North of Manhattan in New York's northernmost borough, the Belmont area of the Bronx is a mixed neighborhood that offers a gritty view of one of those parts of the city that supports all others. And buried in the center of it all, starting at 187th Street from Arthur Avenue across to Prospect Avenue, is an age-old enclave of tight-knit neighbors and crowded shops offering some of the best Italian eats in New York..

Here we found bakeries, old school butchers and fishmongers selling the freshest stuff in town the same way they have done for generations. Sausages hang from tin ceilings beside enormous balls and tubers of cheese coated in wax. Wheels of even more cheese, from pale white, to yellow, to ancient hues of orange are stacked high on stainless counters encasing rows of sliced meats, sausages rolled into pinwheels, cut steaks, lamb and pork chops, hunks of ruby-red beef and roasts rolled and tied with string. Tiny quail line up with shiny rabbits, glistening liver, kidneys and mounds of honeycombed tripe white as snow. Full carcasses hang in the windows, along with blanched cows feet, the occasional sheep's head and, or course, more sausages. 

Pasta shops intersperse the many merchants along both 187th and Arthur Ave, where we found nearly every fresh-made or imported pasta imaginable, as well as prepared dishes like lasagna, baked ziti and a variety of ravioli. In the middle of the block is the cavernous Arthur Avenue Retail Market, selling everything from fruit and vegetables, to pasta, meats, fish, olives, espressos and even cigars, hand-rolled on the spot by  a few Dominican guys. At Casa Dela Mozzarella I was quizzed on what made their signature cheese so special. Around the corner we gazed with wonder at Calandra Cheese Shop's ceiling of sausage. A block down, in front of Consenza's fish market, we savored a variety of oysters and clams, fresh-shucked and slurped loudly. Nearby I sampled sopressatta, pepperonis and other Italian sausages thrust upon me by Nino Madonna, who's been making customers happy at Vincent's Meat Market for more than 55 years. A visit to each shop on Arthur Avenue begins a new story for all who enter, leaving them with -- in addition to delicious Italian food -- great memories from New York's real Little Italy. 

To get a glimpse of what Arthur Avenue has to offer, see this Foodwalkers video on Youtube.

Dining on the path to Nirvana

Sunrise on the Ganges, Varanasi

You can't go to Varanasi as your first stop in India; you have to work up to it.” My Indian traveling partner, Jatender, said as we boarded Jet Airway’s comfortable flight from Delhi. He wasn’t kidding. One of the principle cities of the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh with over 3.6 million people, Varanasi -- also called Benares -- looks much like any other large urban area in India. It’s chaotic and crowded, with a high disparity of those who have and have not. But you quickly sense something different about this former home to Lord Shiva, considered by Hindus to be the oldest city in the world. There’s an energy – electric in the air – that seems to set its inhabitants on a common rhythm. At the bookends of every day that rhythm quickens and draws them together. And what drives that rhythm? Ganga.

One of the many ghats along the banks of the Ganges.

Holy Waters

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The River Ganges is the lifeblood of all things in this holiest city in India. Along her muddy shores can be seen the entire spectrum of human existence, from birth to death and everything in between. She is worshipped as the goddess Ganga, the most sacred river to Hindus who center their lives around her and make pilgrimages from afar to her shores. A dip in her waters is believed to wash away all sin, and most Hindus dream of standing in her tide at least one time in their lives. She has also been ranked among the top five most polluted rivers of the world; with contaminants more than a hundred times higher than official Indian limits. Yet all along her banks Hindus bathe in her waters. They pay homage to their ancestors and gods, offering flowers and rose petals and shallow bowls of burning ghee to her current. Often they will leave Ganga with small quantities of her water to keep her in their daily lives.

The contrasts of life along the Ganges is dizzying. At the more than sixty ghats in Varanasi people convene daily to pray, chant and perform ablutions in her brown water. They stand chest deep and cup water in their hands, lifting it and letting it fall. They dip their heads below her surface to cleanse their souls. A few meters over, men wash laundry, spread-eagled in knee deep water, swinging and slapping fabrics on rocks to get them clean, then stretching them on the hard banks to dry. Just beyond, children swim, jumping from abandoned concrete abutments to shrill laughter and cheers.

A dream of many Hindus is to die on the banks of Ganga - the path to Nirvana.

A dream of many Hindus is to die on the banks of Ganga - the path to Nirvana.

Along the bank at Hanuman Ghat – one of the several cremation ghats – log pyres as tall as three meters burn, their flames dancing toward the sky through thick, acrid smoke. Further upstream a frail, sick man lies alone at the edge of the water, waiting to die. There is no place more longed for by Hindus at their time of death than the Ganges’ banks in Varanasi; the Shmashana, or great cremation ground. Their ashes – and even entire intact bodies wrapped in muslin – are released to Mother Ganga’s natural ebb and flow on their posthumous path to Nirvana, bypassing further reincarnation to instant salvation – the fast pass to Moksha. It’s so important that worshipers from elsewhere in India often transport the bodies of loved ones to Varanasi (often on the roof of a car) to send them off in the Ganges.

Feeding the soul

It was a blistering afternoon when Jatender and I visited Sarnath just outside of town, the most famous of the many temples here and the spot where thousands of years ago Lord Buddah delivered his first sermon extolling the virtues of Buddishm. From there we maneuvered through crippling traffic along narrow, dusty streets jammed with cars, scooters, ox-drawn wagons, diesel-belching busses and throngs of people on bicycle and foot. Our goal was to experience the Aarti Ceremony, a daily Hindu ritual to pray to deities during the setting sun. Jatender tried to prepare me for what was to come; to steel me for the onslaught of religious fervor the likes of which I had never before experienced. It was a futile effort.

At Dasaswamdh Ghat we join throngs of pilgrims for prayer at Ganga’s edge. The solemnity is electrifying, a spiritual current in the air linked to a river which leads closer to Nirvana than anywhere else in the Hindu world. Ganga’s surface is nearly obscured by countless boats bumping against each other under the tenuous list of overcapacity. Hundreds of diyas float by between vessels everywhere, their leaf bowls filled with burning ghee glowing yellow in the darkening drift. 

We’re squeezed on the ghat steps among thousands of believers chanting and praying to the lead of men on platforms at the edge of the water. As darkness descends the air is thick with the malodor of humanity at its lowest common denominator, pious pilgrims from across India crowding together in the evening heat. The drone of chanting mantras, thumping drums and jingling bells is continuous until the cacophony melds into one indiscernible din of sound which resonates deep within my body and leaves me lightheaded. Afterwards we are swept along with the sea of spiritually-sated followers to nearby galis – narrow streets and alleys – to satisfy more earthly cravings: for food.

Gorging in the Galis

Eating along the Ganges is not for the feint of heart or constitution. To the uninitiated the mixture of flavors and selection seems endless and largely unidentifiable. Except within the condensed Islamic sections set back from the river, where spicy mutton and minced meat on sticks can be found, most of the cuisine in Old Varanasi is vegetarian. Vegetables are fried, boiled, grilled or shredded alongside fried dough, panni purri, flat breads and desserts. If it’s a small, fried dish on the streets of Varanasi, it’s likely a kind of chaat, a loose definition of snacks made with various doughs and any number of other ingredients, spices and sauces.  Down the narrow, congested galis leading to the ghats there are hundreds of eateries that are little more than holes in the wall, benches or makeshift thelas (pushcarts) beside cauldrons of boiling oil in which kachoris are frying or round griddles filled with sizzling delights

We are pushed along by the masses, dragging ourselves out whenever we see something that looks tasty or strange. The choices are many; makeshift storefronts with men sitting cross-legged on tables cooking food amid an endless clot of hungry people clamoring for attention. We want to try as many Benarasi flavors as possible, including tasting the fragrant 'Benarasi paan' that often contains aromatics of rose and 'supari' (areca-nut). Chewing this 'paan,' then spitting seems to be a part of the cultural identity of the people of Varanasi.

In Vishwanath Gali we find tiny, unnamed joints selling aloo-palak pakoras with hot and sweet chutneys, and thandai. The shops are so small and narrow that no one can enter past the cook sitting beside his hot griddle and glowing coals. We stand and eat in the narrow alley as pilgrims and the occasional free-roaming cow brush blindly past us.

Along the streets we bark orders in unison with the crowd at vendors, elevated on their cooking platforms, for servings of potato tiki, spicy fried tomatoes, sautéed spinach leaves and numerous variations of kachori. In one place we invade a table cramped with a group of women who have pilgrimaged from Southern India. Despite our language limitations we share a vast selections of pani-puri – small crisp balls, hollow and filled with a scoop of greenish mint water from a bucket or stuffed with mashed vegetables then doused in thick yogurt and sour tamarind. At a windowfront with a freezer a man is selling kulfi falooda, an unchurned, eggless ice cream, topped with thin cellophane noodles of rose syrup and saffron, slippery and blazing yellow. Its texture is delicate and creamy, with a floroal, milky flavor.

Banarasis have a passion for milk or yogurt-based drinks, surprising given the lack of refrigeration on the street. Lassis are also common, served from flat bowls sitting on open counters in the 42 degree Celsius heat. The texture is a bit unsettling at first – thick, creamy and slightly sour. We drink them from little clay kulhads then shatter the fragile cups on the ground by the shop. Another specialty drink is thandai, made of water, sugar, watermelon, muskmellon, lotus seeds, almonds, cashew, cardamom, rose-flower, white pepper and saffron. We let the mixer add bhang to the thandai -- a leaf much like marijuana or opium that grows wild throughout the region -- to give it a pleasant, intoxicating kick.


Late into the night we gorge on paapri-chaat garnished with coriander, ghee, yoghurt and sugar syrup; spinach and gram flour pakora fritters; potato and pea samosas with chutney; and many other forms of chaat doused with the sweet and sour tang of ginger and tamarind chutneys and air-warmed yoghurts. We wash it all down with chai and rosewater and sweet/sour masala-flavoured kanji, thick like chowder. And then there are the sweets – Banarasis do like their deserts. We eat hot, crispy jelebis, day-glow orange and dripping syrup and so many other delights; honey-soaked bowls of sweet condensed barfi; rabri like dense cheesecakecoconut and pistachio chumchum made from homemade cheeseand chickpea and semolina laddus, like sweet round balls of dough. The list goes on and by the end of the night I am full beyond comfort and concerned with the possibility of digestive repercussions from such exotic, unfiltered eating. But thankfully they never appear.

Sunrise with Mother Ganga

In the early mornings before sunrise locals and pilgrims for miles crowd the steps of ghats to perform their morning ablutions and daily prayer rituals to start the day. We hire a young boatman to row us in a small skiff to witness the rituals: men and women communing together yet apart, spiritually independent as they absorb the purifying holy water rushing by. They come every day – first to pray, then wash, then dress and switch from the spiritual world to the working one. It’s a scene uncharacteristic of caste-oriented India; peasants and laborers alongside barristers and businessmen – all equal sentient beings in the surge of Mother Ganga

When the sun is high in the sky we leave the water’s edge in search of food. Outside the Golden Temple, deep within a maze of tiny alleys and walkways, we drink hot chai and eat deep fried katchori, a round flattened dough ball stuffed with a mixture of potato, dal, gram flour and spices. Sold in leaf bowls, they are usually accompanied by a dry, spiced chickpea ghugni or with a spicy potato curry. A dousing of tamarind sauce adds a bittersweet finish to the bite-sized breakfast. From there we work our way out of the maze – no easy task – and return to our hotel -- if that’s what one can really call the Taj.

Princely property

The Taj Nadesar Palace is a mind-spinning contrast to the street level existence along the banks of the Ganges. A10 guest room resort owned by Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh of Benares to host heads of state and dignitaries and now managed by the exclusive Taj Hotels & Resorts, it is truly a maharajah’s palace. The stately building is both intimate and grand; true luxury, old-school style. My room, with enormous pedestal bed, sumptuous furnishings, rich textiles and marble everything, gives an insider’s understanding of the upper echelon of Indian culture. After settling in as if I owned the place (which is how every guest is made to feel), I am led by horse-drawn carriage around the property and through the organic gardens by sous-chef Sumalya Sarkar before entering the kitchen to see the action and later sample the delectable food – so foreign from that on the streets. It is the best that an accommodation in an important place like Varanasi can offer.

To represent Taj’s commitment to local food and flavors and the thousands of years of culture behind it, Executive Chef Sanjeev Chopra serves me his specialty Satvik Thali – a selection of carefully prepared vegetarian recipes designed to establish calmness, purity and balance. The food was elegant and refined yet true to its local origin; each dish bursting with contrasting flavors of eggplant, dal, ochra and curry. Small, flavorful side items accented specific dishes, one cooling the heat, another lightening the heavy, each adding texture and balance. And with every bite came a sense of authenticity, a taste of India in its genteel, refined state – pure, local food dressed up for nobility and honor and prepared as well as food can be made. It was a feast that rounded out my culinary odyssey of Varanasi – from lowest-to-the-ground eating in the narrow galis along the Ganges, to the highest of Benearasi haute cuisine in a palace constructed for kings.

Contradiction of emotions

It is difficult to sum up Varanasi except to say it’s exotic and overwhelming to all senses. A dazzling montage of reality; some things that you can’t stop marveling at; others you wish you hadn’t seen. It’s a land of contradiction: of rich and poor; beauty and revulsion; miracle and tragedy – all inexplicably bound by a cultural cord dating back thousands of years. Mother Ganga is a living, moving, humanity-consuming goddess whose holy stature vastly exceeds the width of her banks or the depth of her waters. The spiritual fervor around Varanasi’s narrow streets and at Ganga’s filthy yet sacred shores is electrifying and confusing – and as a visitor it’s easy to encounter an internal battle between loving it and hating it. But it matters not which of those feelings win out, but simply that it makes you feel. And whatever mix of emotions you leave with there is one word all who go there will use to describe this place: Incredible.

Getting There

Jet Airways makes getting from Singapore to India quick and easy. In Delhi, you’ll easily connect to Jet’s quick flight to Varanasi. And because it’s India’s largest internal airline – going virtually everywhere in the subcontinent – you can check your bags all the way through. As an air-weary traveler I was pleasantly surprised by Jet’s excellent service, great entertainment and – believe it or not – exceptional food. For details see  Of course, to get the most out of your India experience you should rely on the experts. Luxe India, with their unique Le Concierge services, is the most respected high-end tour outfitter in India and will make all arrangements for an experience of a lifetime. For details go to And for a memorable stay at the Taj Nedesar Palace, see