Fiestas Patrias Outdoors

Cajon Del Maipo

Cajon Del Maipo

It was that time of year again recently, when the whole country stops to celebrate its heritage and the coming of Spring. It’s Fiestas Patrias, highlighted by the Big Day: Dieciocho de Septiembre (September 18). And I’ve been here long enough now to know that one of the great loves of most residents in this geographic wonderland called Chile is the outdoors. So it seemed only natural that this year’s national celebration take place not in the confines of my well-worn quincho (BBQ pavilion) or at one of the many public festivals honoring everything Chilean (see prior post: Chiles Festivals of Festivals), but rather outside. The only challenge: where to go to relish in Chile’s great outdoors while still avoiding airport crowds and heavy highway traffic. The answer was less than a couple of hours away; Cajon Del Maipo.

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Cajón del Maipo is a remarkable mountain canyon area just south of Santiago. It encompasses the upper Maipo River, squeezed into a narrow but rugged valley, with a collection of smaller rivers branching off. The result is a steep canyon with a healthy mix of acacia, scrub and even deciduous forest lining both steep sides -- all forming a diverse environment perfect for outdoor fun of nearly any skill level. The Cajon's main town is San Jose De Maipo, a tidy series of adobe lined streets leading to a central square and many small shops and eateries. It's also the last chance for gasoline, so fill up before heading further down the sealed road and higher into the mountainous canyon. After about twenty kilometers that road diminishes into dirt, rising higher toward rugged natural thermal pools and the Argentinian border. In the warm Southern Cone summer, you don't really need four-wheel drive to get up there -- but you'll wish you had it, as the road is rutted and rough. But in the winter, if you don’t have a full-blown 4x4 and chains, well, forgettaboutit....  

Ours was not to be an expedition requiring such technology, though by the look of the things packed in the cars one might have thought otherwise or suspected that the Beverly Hillbillies had moved very far south. Our destination was Tres Continentes -- a trio of tidy cabanas on the edge of the Maipo River, in the shadow of rocky cliffs. Rough hewn of natural wood, stone, a potbellied woodburner inside and a wonderful quincho outside, each cabana offered all the comforts of really nice glamping. Perfect for our National Day getaway with friends to embrace the near Andes for a long weekend.

cabana at Tres Continentes

cabana at Tres Continentes

The plan was simple: merge the exploration of outdoor activities with good food and wine along the way. This included horseback riding up rough terrain, zip lining across the river, hiking to beautiful waterfalls and whitewater rafting. And, of course, cooking over open flames – Chilean style. Which immediately translates into grilling an array of meat and veg and washing it all down with good Chilean wine.

At Casacada de Animas, an enclave of outdoor activities and river relaxation, we kicked off our weekend with dinner of local classics at La Tribu, in its comfortable, treehouse-like setting on the edge of the river. It was a good start to a weekend of the nation’s favorite foods – an indoor prelude to what would be a celebration of Chile’s best way to cook its great food: over open flames. So it was back to our rustic hand-carved cabanas, to cook, eat and drink nothing but Chile.

During the days we played hard to burn off the prior night’s feast and prepare for the next. And to fortify ourselves  for such outdoor activities came another true Chilean staple: empanadas. Filled with shrimp, or cheese or pino (ground meat with spices, olives and a hard-cooked egg), the bubbles of bronzed crust and tender dough forming half-moons larger than your hand were the perfect portable daytime treat that left us wanting for nothing more than a cold Kunstman lager in the early-Spring sunshine.

But we were here to cook and eat, so it was important to start out right. And malaya is one of the best starters for any plate of grilled food in Chile -- at least for lovers of all things porcine. It can be best described as a blanket of fresh pork that normally covers the ribs in a marble of flesh and fat -- which in the US might be called pork rose meat. Now I'm not talking about those skinny strips of soon to be overly-crispy, rendered down pork belly (aka bacon). I'm talking pork strips the way they should be prepared – spread over a hot grill like a comforter on a bed, sizzling ad popping and releasing a haze of pure piggy-porky goodness. Flip it a couple of times, then spritz with fist-squeezed lemon and slice into finger-friendly pieces. That’s all anyone needs for the perfect appetizer – pork, pure and simple. So if you like pork, and you haven’t tried malaya yet, you gott’a go do it. Now.

Malaya

Of course Fiestas Patrias wouldn’t be complete without that grilled sausage centerpiece known as Choripan. It’s the beauty of sausage simplicity – local spiced chorizo grilled to perfect plumpness, shoved into a fresh-baked mini-loaf of mariqueta and slathered with the national (not so) hot sauce: pebre. Throw in some local corn (choclo) cooked in the coals and a few tasty sides and you have yourself a Fiestas Patrias plate that no self-respecting Chileno would exclude on this holiday of holidays in South America’s downunder.

Choripan

Of course, once hot coals of a quincho have settled to that perfect glow and the heat is smooth and steady, it’s nearly impossible for any Chilean to not throw on a few steaks. It is, after all, the preferred protein throughout the year and the big holiday here is no exception. So to embrace that tradition we kept it simple, great Lomo Vetado (in the US, Rib Eye) steaks thick cut by hand and kissed with a dry rub of herbs and spices, cooked a punto (medium rare). Along side the feast of beef rested fire-charred broccoli spritzed with lemon and sweet, soft onions.

And while an oenophile might suggest a well-aged Cabernet as the perfect accompaniment to such exceptional flame-kissed flesh, we kept it uniquely local with the fruity chewiness of Chile’s favorite wine – Carmenere – to wash down our ridiculously good celebration of all things Chilean.

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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. 

¡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!

A Slice of New York

Pizza. Nearly everybody loves it in various shapes, sizes, depths and styles. But the most common pizza this side of Italy is the kind you find at the countless pizza joints all across the US, including in your own neighborhood. It's “New York” style pizza: thin crust beneath the pie and rounded edges to serve as the handle of the wedge-cut slices, spread with red sauce and melty mozzarella, maybe a topping or two. It’s pizza the way you think of it; the way the internet depicts it when you search the word.  And perhaps the best rendition, indeed the very definition of this classic pizza, is at Joe’s Pizza in – of course – New York City.

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Joe’s Pizza is a New York institution and a stomping ground for everyone who lives in Greenwich Village. Ask any local walking down the street in the Village – they all know where Joe’s is. But it’s more than just a local pizza joint -- this pizza is so quintessentially New York that it’s now a tourist attraction. Stand at the window counter on the crowded sidewalk and you hear accents and languages from, well, everywhere. Because if you like pizza and you like street food and you’re visiting New York, you grab a slice at Joe’s.

The thing about Joe’s is that it may not be the very best pizza you’ve ever eaten – it’ll come close, but you might think you’ve had better. But this is not just about pizza, this is about New York.  Because Joe’s represents the streets of New York; the food of the people who pound the pavement of The Monster at all hours of the day and night. You want street food in the Big Apple but fear the dirty water dog or mystery-meat gyro? You go to Joe’s for the real deal. Once there, you stand in an ever-present line, yell out for a slice (always get at least 2) and wait for the thin paper plate to come sliding your way. Amateurs sometimes opt for toppings, but Joe’s pros go neat and so should you. Then push back through the crowd to a narrow counter or a standing spot outside on the street and eat.

And by “eat” I mean lean slightly forward to avoid dripping grease on yourself, and with your forefinger and thumb fold the slice over on itself like a sandwich and stick it -- point first -- into your mouth. It’s a skill that takes a little tasty practice, but the inevitable newbie stain on your shirt will be worth it.  What you’ll experience is a thin crust, slightly crispy and randomly burnt in spots on the bottom and along the crust. That thin crust is (almost) sturdy enough to hold it all together – all you need is a finger to support the underside. It's spread with a thin layer of really tomato-y sauce that tastes exactly what you imagine great homemade tomato sauce should taste like (but rarely does). On top of that is just enough cheese to dress up the surface and add an umami glow. Not too much, not too little – just the way owner Pino Pozzuoli (aka "Joe") has intended since he opened the doors in 1975. Seems he knows best, and like any true New Yorker, is not afraid to say it. "People don't always want stuff that's too rich or heavy. I've been making and watching people eat pizza for over 50 years, I know what they want."

The thing that is special about Joe’s is it’s lack of specialness. It’s not fancy – if you didn’t know better you’d walk right past it just like you’ve done with a hundred other, lesser pizza joints in the City. If Joe’s were a sheltered, sit-down restaurant decorated with faux-Italian tchotchke and with a wait staff it wouldn’t be special. It wouldn’t be New York. It’s unadorned. It’s tiny; even a little uncomfortable to stand in as you wolf down your slice among others doing the same thing. But do it quietly. Because no self-respecting New Yorker makes a big deal about their bites, trying instead to contain their delight at the clean classic taste and perfectly imperfect crust – for fear that any outward expression of enjoyment runs a risk of being labeled a – dare I say it – tourist.

So when you go – and you really must if given the chance – be the local that you suddenly wish you were, and order a couple of slices like you couldn’t care less. Control your expression, the smile that wants to form at the corners of your mouth, the uplifting of your eyebrows and wide-eyed look at others. Just eat it like it’s a no-big-deal everyday thing, while your insides soar to new pizza heights and you discover the New York you’ve always dreamed of.

Joe's Pizza  7 Carmine Street, New York NY 10014 (at 6th Ave and Bleeker St.).

Behold, the unlikely fritter!

It’s apple fritters the way you think you don’t want them...And they are uncommonly delicious.

It’s apple fritters the way you think you don’t want them...And they are uncommonly delicious.

I’m just going to come out and say it: I love apple fritters. Okay, sure, when the Autumn leaves turn to a kaleidoscope of New England colors, who doesn’t like apple fritters -- those bronzed pillows of sweet dough, sugar and bite of apple goodness. But that’s not what I’m talking about. This is something different – familiar and common yet totally unexpected. It’s apple fritters the way you think you don’t want them: produced in large batches in an industrial kitchen while delivery trucks sit in the pre-dawn darkness out back, waiting. They are the 7-Eleven minimarket apple fritters of New Jersey. And they are uncommonly delicious.

I know what you’re thinking. But no, I haven’t been commissioned by 7-Eleven’s department of baked goods. And in truth, I don’t want to like these apple fritters; I really don’t. But some things simply defy logic and force me to acknowledge that, much as something should not be good; surely cannot be good; it is, indeed, good. Really good. Okay, in fairness to the dubious expression reflecting back at you from your screen, my bold statement does not apply to all apple fritters at all 7-Eleven’s strewn across towns, train stations and highway stops the world over. But in New Jersey and reaching into the edges of Eastern Pennsylvania, there are little-known bakeries making apple fritters for 7-Eleven that I will put up against any cider mill special in New England.

Let’s start on the outside of the fritter. They’re pretty ugly. Gnarly shaped to the point of suspect trepidation, they are usually tossed haphazardly into a corner of the store’s glass display, overshadowed by seductive doughnuts and crullers lined up just so which in comparison to the fritter beside them evoke a lonely hollowness of heart with every bite (Sorry 7-Eleven, just keeping it real). But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in this fritter’s case, the convolutions of the crust. Because the very imperfection of this apple fritter’s appearance is one of the keys to its perfection. With each bend, lump or awkward protrusion of the slightly crispy outer surface comes hearty apple and pastry flavor with an air-kiss of smoky caramelization. With its inconsistent color – some edges tinged a little too much, others maybe not quite enough – comes a food that looks like it was cooked in a dented pot of dark oil on a pushcart along a street in Vietnam or Guatemala. Because this fritter is like street food the way foodies love it: unpredictable, unattractive, and freaking fantastic. 

But the magic doesn’t stop there. The inside of 7-Eleven’s fritters are neither empty pillows like one might assume, nor dry and mealy like one might loath. Typical bakery fritters are often too skimpy on apples and too heavy on dough. The result is a dry loaf of fried bread with a mere suggestion of apple -- like two dudes passing each other on the street and simply mumbling “Hey.” But when you break through the tensile crust of the 7-Eleven fritter you discover moist dough -- simultaneously sweet and savory -- chunky with apples and a hint of cinnamon. Rather than the passing hand-waive of wannabe fritter dudes, these bad boys are like the bro-hug of college roommates who recall those days as the best of their lives. There is density to this pastry, heft in its weight, firmness with every succulent chew. This is not your average, empty calorie coffee accompaniment; this thing is the breakfast you’ve been craving. Which just goes to show that, while good food isn't everywhere, you might find good food anywhere -- even in a most unlikely place as a New Jersey mini-market.

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Making Apple Fritters at Home
There are more than a few ways to make apple fritters and many recipes can be found online. But fair warning: many home cooks just drop dollops of wet apple/flour batter into hot oil, resulting in golf balls of greasy dough and mushy apple. Not the 7-Eleven pros; they do it the harder way – and so should you. Start by rolling out a healthy doughnut dough, spreading cooked apples and sugar on it, dusting with cinnamon and flour and rolling into a long tube. Cut the roll in opposing diagonals, resulting in a fairly uniform collection of doughy apple cuts, and mold together in individual handfuls to flatten and carefully deep fry. And forget about drizzling a thin stream of glaze on your cooked masterpiece; 7-Eleven dips the entire meteorite-shaped fritter into that milk and confectioner’s sugar glaze. The opaque elixir dries, forming a crackly sheen over the lumps and bumps, with little prizes of coagulated sweetness hiding unpredictably in the shadowy crevices. It’s the perfect finish that’s sweet without masking the flavor of the pastry or making your teeth ache. Cool, eat and swoon.

¡Chile’s Festival of Festivals!

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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!

 

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.

Arches

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

 

Walkways

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.

 

Windows

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

 

Doorways

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.