The Talisman: A magical expat nook in southwestern Nairobi

The omnipresent developing world traffic of Nairobi, Kenya can’t stop expats from flocking to The Talisman, an eclectic, cozy gastropub for international culinary fusion or cocktails with friends. I joined that set for a night during my trip to Kenya, and the restaurant didn’t disappoint for food and atmosphere.

For those of you who haven’t visited sub-Saharan Africa, I’m guessing the image in your head is taken from The Lion King or, perhaps, nature documentaries: a grassy savannah with a sparse few stubby trees. Yes, Africa does have them, of course, but the city of Nairobi is certainly more green, hilly, and forested than one might expect. Or that just might be me.  

With the exception of downtown Nairobi with its skyscrapers, or its densely populated urban slums with human life beating out the plant kingdom (sometimes barely a victory), the city and its surrounding area is forested, not unlike a somewhat more tropical version of those seen in the US and Europe. The effect is that you can’t really see just how terrible the traffic is ahead of you, and you find places that are almost magical surprises in their existence within the forest.
The Talisman is one such surprise – and it should be, given that it is not the most easily accessible with a location on the opposite side of the city as its primary business and diplomatic districts. On a map, it doesn’t look quite so far. The distance is less than 6 miles (10 km) from the city center, but in Nairobi terms, its more like 60. Traffic in Nairobi is absolutely horrendous, and that means something, coming from someone who commuted in Lima, Peru and has experienced the world-class horror that is trying to drive through crowded Agra, India on a night particularly auspicious for weddings (which stop traffic completely). 
Nairobi’s baffling affinity for roundabouts, strobing road cameras, and U-turns in place of organized traffic control (signals or humans) is perhaps its own worst enemy. Bottom line, you must be very accustomed to the traffic and/or have a very good reason to drive across or around the city for dinner at The Talisman.

The Talisman itself is rather unassuming from its driveway, a rambling, one-story white stucco building that appears to be a converted residence, surrounded by tall trees. Inside, a network of rooms with working fireplaces and walls adorned with local art – impressionist landscapes and portraits – form separate dining areas, and its wooden bar evokes nothing of the gastropub marketed on its slick website. But its coziness grew on me, a respite from the traffic, from the crowded slums and bumpy dirt roads I passed through earlier in the day. I realize that probably sounds a little shallow, but it’s really all about unwinding after a day of overstimulation and too much jostling in a van.

My colleague and I were seated in their covered outdoor patio – the covering fortunate after a wet afternoon during this winter rainy season. A charcoal grill whimsically in the shape of a grinning frog (the mouth full of coals) kept us warm as the evening darkened. It was perhaps a bit too dark without a candle, but that addition made our meal feel a bit more rustic – never mind that anything but African cuisine is part of the menu. 

Having skipped lunch, I was the hungriest I’d been on my trip to Kenya, and my colleague had a bit of a scare owning to playing prawn roulette at dinner the preceding night, so we both chose starters: me a beetroot and goat cheese tartlet and him that African staple, spicy chicken wings (sarcasm). The tart was layered, with caramelized beets and onions lining the shell and crowned with goat cheese.

Excited to see wine flights on the beverage list (which I discovered to be an alien concept to the British, apparently), I decided to be adventurous and try a Sauvignon blanc flight that included variants of the varietal from Chile, South Africa, and Kenya. The Kenyan wine had an intriguing aroma of toasted marshmallows. I should have guessed right there what that meant, but I eagerly took a sip. The wine had a cloying white-grape juice flavor, which was masked by a smokiness best described as tasting like the grapes were grown in a field surrounding by heaps of burning trash (a real and not abnormal odor around Nairobi and the Rift Valley). Oh well! I now know not to drink Kenyan wine anytime soon. Rift Valley Wine: When you miss that toasty, garbage ash aroma.

For my main dish, I chose a Moroccan spiced beef stew, served with a minted couscous that looked like tabbouleh but was certainly couscous; soft pita; yogurt, chutney, and hummus. The hummus tasted subtly and weirdly of bananas – I am going to guess that was all me. Who makes banana hummus? It was a fun palette of sweet, salty, tangy, and earthy flavors at once. It was satisfying and filling to my empty stomach. 

My colleague ordered steak, which came with “matched potatoes”.  No, I don’t believe that was a typographical error on the menu. These were little fried potato cakes that made French fries seem pedestrian. If I return to the Talisman, I definitely would order those potatoes as a side dish.

If our beef-heavy meals weren’t enough, chocolate desserts were our downfall. We split a chocolate fondant (molten cake) and a seasonal special – a Bailey’s brownie, both served with ice cream; both were fantastic, but the brownie was other-worldly with the clear flavor of Irish cream infused throughout. I need no other words to describe the sensation other than YUM.

Stuffed, satisfied, and relaxed after a day of overstimulation, The Talisman was the perfect culinary antidote we needed.

Narobi, Kenya: Where culture, cuisine, and class converge

Fresh off a Kenyan adventure, the CD takes you on a cultural and culinary tour of Nairobi, a city of contrasts. The food scene one finds in Nairobi as a wealthy expatriate is far different than what those less fortunate may eat, showing us all just how fortunate we are as travelers.

Many of us in the developed world (pretty much most of the northern hemisphere) take for granted our range of food options – our ability to travel internationally without ever leaving home; access to clean water and safe produce; the consistent access to electricity to transform those raw materials into something altogether different through heat or refrigeration/freezing. Many of us are fortunate to vary our diet at least a few times a week and count on at least two full meals.

My recent trip to Kenya reminded me of the contrast between the global “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of not only our food culture, but our opportunities as well. I have to confess a little uneasiness at my enjoyment of international dishes at restaurants catering to expats and foreign visitors while serving a nutritionally marginal – yet coveted with the desperation of hunger and unpredictable meals – breakfast to street children and teens in a Nairobi slum. It’s the luxury of trying crocodile or camel for the sheer novelty of doing so vs the monotony of porridge and starch that provide easy calories.

During my trip, I visited everything from international organizations and gleaming, modern business schools to a rural primary school with 1800 students, 50 students per class clamoring for the chance to learn math through donated computer based training, and to slum-based community empowerment organizations, including one where I met some of Kenya’s most promising rappers dreaming of international recording stardom. In Kenya, there is extreme hardship and opportunity around every congested, chaotic roundabout (more of those than corners on the streets of Nairobi!).

And in each community, a contrast between the homeless (porridge), the road to empowerment (street samosas; rice and beans with cooked greens from an organic community garden); the formal dining hall of the university business school; to the luxury of (the risk of!) eating sushi alongside a Mediterranean eggplant spread with a cocktail at a five-star hotel.

Kenya’s cuisine appears fairly simple relative to the spicy dishes loved in other equatorial lands, though it also draws from the heavy influence of centuries of trade with the Indian subcontinent. At its most basic are its simple Millet or maize (corn) porridges that expand to fill a hungry belly, served with Mandazi, a simple, savory, triangle of fried dough (the slum’s samosa, perhaps). A little further up the ladder – and a bit more egalitarian among Kenya’s social classes – is Ugali, a soft pancake or spoon bread-like starch made from a hardened maize + flour porridge. It’s sort of a softer (and, I’m told, more bland) answer to Ethiopia’s Injera. It typically is a vessel for fried beef or goat, or sometimes beans. Beef is Kenya’s cheapest meat, in contrast to many developed economies.

The Indian influence does make it through even the working classes, where street kiosks sell samosas and chai to those on the go; biryani, pilau, chapattis, and roti/naan are prevalent.

And the middle classes and above have the access one might expect to modern supermarkets and coffee houses, to international restaurants.

At this end is where I fell, carrying the white woman’s guilt from handing out greasy Mandazi and porridge in cups that had to be-reused without sterilization from child to child, reminded that I am fortunate – as are any of you reading this bougie blog! because of birth, not birthright, nor deserved by hard work. My own work ethic only serves to elevate me even more from my birth status as one of the global 0.1% (as I used to refer to my fellow business school classmates and myself as we studied business in the developing world). It’s a humbling reminder to be grateful.

The humility also killed my appetite a bit; ok, that and unreliable drinking water. One night, my British colleague and I dined at the uber-touristy Nyama Choma Ranch dinner theatre at the Safari Park Hotel. It, like other touristy meat-themed restaurants (yes, that’s you, Carnivore) offers patrons a smorgasbord of any sort of meat imaginable. From the mundane – roast chicken and dark meat turkey – to the less ordinary – goat, to the exotic – crocodile (tastes like turkey) or camel (tastes like alpaca), diners are encouraged to channel their primal appetites while watching a coed troupe of athletic young dancers serve as a human, tribal diorama.

That’s not to say that tribalism isn’t authentic or alive still in 21st century Kenya (or, perhaps it isn’t a stretch to see tribalism in political rivalries in the US and the Brexit divide in the U.K…?) Those dance numbers just feel a little too contrived for me to enjoy them. And it’s another reminder that the culinary traditions enjoyed by Kenya’s citizens and residents are largely a reflection of a stratified, uneven class structure – and that I fit into that top echelon as an American professional and visitor.

Yes, Kenya is a land of contrasts. I felt it traveling from the five star hotel to the slums, just as I felt it in a different sense during a drive through Nairobi National Park – a safari available within the Nairobi city and county limits. In the park, one can feel so remote, so close to nature – and yet there, the zebras, impalas, buffaloes, and giraffes coexist with the visible urban skyline of Nairobi. It’s every bit a surreal experience as the slum-to-hotel transition. It’s every bit quintessential Kenya, also.

Lest this blog seem super heavy, join me next time for my favorite meal of my trip at expat (and Trip Advisor) darling, The Talisman.

The quintessential high tea experience at London’s Hotel Café Royal

There is perhaps no dining experience more quintessentially British than a proper high tea. And when one has so many fine tea rooms to choose from, how does one do so? Discover how here!

A truly great high tea experience has been on my bucket list since my first trip to London 15 years ago. I finally had the experience about which I’d dreamt: It was worth the wait.

The deceptive sun and trees glistening with icy hailstones

The Telegraph put together a great list of London’s top teas, highlighting the best of particular themes. On this list for best “London-themed teas” was the Oscar Wilde Bar at Hotel Cafe Royal. Scoring a reservation for one with short notice while on a business trip, I walked about five kilometers from my hotel through rain , sun and hailstorms – no, I’m not making that up – to earn that tea and soak up my very short time in the city.
I have to say, I hadn’t really done my research about Hotel Café Royal, located near Picadilly Circus. I went in blind, other than the research as to the high tea itself. The venue’s history is rich with celebrated figures and intrigue. Founded by fugitive French tax evaders in the mid 19th century – oh, those French! – the café was a new stop and architectural novelty on the developing Regent Street. Over the years, it found itself playing frequent host to elite patrons from literature, celebrity, royalty, and even boxing legends. Celebrated authors such as Oscar Wilde (for whom the tea room was recently renamed) and Virginia Woolf, royalty including George V and his disgraced older brother, Edward VII and later, Princess Diana, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali have numbered among its patrons.

Approaching the hotel from the tourist laden Picadilly Circus, I wasn’t sure what to expect in such proximity to all these tourists. Once I walked inside, my opinion changed dramatically. The hotel’s mix of modern decor among its elegant 19th century architecture creates an exclusive feel. As I stepped into the restored Oscar Wilde Bar, the decor stepped back a century. Rose-colored walls are covered with gilded, ornate wood; its ceilings equally busy but stunning with painted floral scenes. It is exactly as one might expect a Victorian high tea for the wealthy of that era.

While the dining experience centers around tea, Laurent-Perrier champagne is just as much an ubiquitous beverage, as most patrons choose the option of adding a glass of the brut. And why not? There’s always an occasion to celebrate – and on the day of my visit, at least two birthdays were celebrated by the mix of English and foreign clientele. So of course I, too, imbibed.
For my tea, I chose a caffeine-free hibiscus and berry herbal tea. It was my sidekick throughout the experience, along with my own glass of champagne. The attentive staff were kind to offer me newspapers and magazines to read during my solo tea, as I observed they did with another patron dining solo. It was a lovely touch that enhanced my tea (and kept me off of my mobile phone).

Next came the savories, presented elegantly on a tiered silver tray. The amuse bouche was a goat’s cheese and “pickled apple” muffin topped with a rosette of goat cheese and an odd syringe-like dropper full of cucumber juice. It sounds (and looks – as you can see in the photo) odd, but it was perhaps the second best item I ate during the meal.

Crustless tea sandwiches included the traditional (for a reason – simple and delicious!) English cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, smoked salmon, chicken, ham, and prawn. Attentive to allergies, the staff substituted my choice of vegetarian option for the prawn. I opted to try a cheese and chutney combination – a whimsical and indeed, British sweet and savory duo. Should you care for more of a particular variety, they will bring you more. Dangerous!

For the win, sweet tooth! Clotted cream, jam, the hibiscus palate cleanser, and Champagne grace the foreground. In the rear, the four artisanal desserts

I moved on to the sweets. First came a palate cleanser, a subtly sweet, chilled beverage made from the same hibiscus and berry tea that accompanied my food.

It’s not butter! Clotted cream and jam slathered generously atop a plain scone, as the English do it. Amazing.

Scones and tea are inseparable in England. One cannot have a proper tea without scones, though the requisite toppings are a matter of regional taste and tradition. Clotted cream (no, it’s not butter; it’s better!) and strawberry jam are most popular, as I learned when taking a decidedly more humble high tea at a brasserie in the town of Windsor on the previous day with a local friend.

Personally, I’ve never cared much for scones. Now, however, I am a convert. The memory of the scones I had at Hotel Cafe Royal will stay imprinted on me for a long time – the dainty, airy scones serving as a vehicle for a thick smear of clotted cream and a slathering of oozy, sweet jam as my friend had taught me. I was too full to eat 10 of them, but really, I would have liked to eat 10 of them.
In fact, they were so good that me, the dessert-aholic, found the scones more memorable than the delicious and beautifully presented sweets also on the tray. A large Cherry and vanilla macaron was adorned with a cute chocolate top hat that makes Paris’ Ladurée look like amateurs. A buttery, mandarine almondine cake (like a financiér) was another memorable delicacy. The yuzu and blueberry filled choux was a little earthy for my tastes and the outside texture a bit crunchy, but the a pear and goat cheese tart could put any New York cheesecake to shame.

A wonderful feature is the generous ability to box up and take away any uneaten delicacies. I resisted to ask for more for my box, but happily took them back to my hotel with me for delayed gratification.

Though it was a bit of a splurge, the ambience, the service, the tea, and best of all, the food are every bit worth it. My high tea wishes fulfilled, I could happily move on from London to other exploits.

Restaurant de La Tour: The perfect Parisian meal at the perfect moment

Today, the CD takes a much-needed reset at a small neighborhood restaurant in the City of Light (and City of Culinary Treasures).

If you have visited Paris, you likely walked around the infamous Tour Eiffel in the city’s Left Bank and 15th Arrondissement. If you did so, you likely noticed quite the assortment of tourist-oriented cafes and street vendors. Yet it’s easy to forget that people actually live and work near this iconic landmark. So if those denizens dine out, where do they go?

One such location is Bistrot (also Restaurant) de La Tour, an unassuming restaurant that lacks the coveted corner location of larger establishments but has the good fortune of being located adjacent to a butcher shop. And it’s only a block from unobstructed views of the Eiffel Tower.

Inside, the small restaurant is cozy, yet elegantly decorated with modern minimalism. What it lacks in scale it more than overcomes with a delicious and relatively large menu with many options. I had a tough time choosing my selections for a three-course, fixed price menu, though one also can choose two courses, as well as from a separate, daily a la carte menu. Shockingly, the three course menu was only 34 Euros, which is pretty great for the quality and personal service of this establishment.

For appetizers (entrées), I had to select from perhaps eight choices, three of which, happily I found, contained pâté de foie gras. Others included soups, a terrine of eggplant (aubergine), sautéed mushrooms, and more. I opted for a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. Duck overkill, perhaps, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of two very different preparations of duck. The smoked duck burst with meaty flavor and the saltiness of cured meat. Regrettably for duck welfare, I love foie gras. Which also means I’m particular about its quality. Bad foie gras can remind you from what duck parts exactly it’s made, while good foie gras can deceive you into thinking it defies labels and was just born of itself. The foie gras in this particular salad, however, lacked the saltiness of most pates and instead of calling attention to the flavor of the pâté, it worked against it, making it seem a bit bland. It also had some recognizable bits in it, which I carefully excised from the rest and discarded. If this sounds disgusting, please know that this was the one and only disappointment of the meal. Every other aspect exceeded my expectations – which is, to say, that in Paris, one cannot have a bad meal at a local restaurant.

Course two was the embodiment of the richness of good French cuisine. Chicken breast with a powerful but lean Gorgonzola sauce was accompanied by snow peas and haricots verts, as well as the most exquisite potatoes Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes) I think I have ever eaten. Those potatoes should have their photo included in a Wikipedia entry for potatoes. They were just that perfect. Other menu options included veal risotto, sea bass, lamb chops, and more.

Now, for the pièce de resistance: dessert. Dessert was another difficult choice for me, with options like a molleux de chocolat (usually a warm, molten chocolate cake), orange supremes with Gran Marnier and ice cream, crème brûlée, and more. But I was intrigued to see a Brioche pain perdû (French toast), which I had never eaten outside of breakfast or brunch, listed. So I picked that.

Let the record speak: This French toast could not have been any better. It deserves a perfect “10” score. Thick, buttery Brioche without the metallic taste of too much egg wash (as French toast is prone to take on) but instead accentuated and moistened only slightly by egg. The toast plateau perched atop a moat of caramel – not the thick, additive laden caramel made from condensed milk, but the sexy, burnt sugar sweetness of of pure, caramelized sugar and melted butter. A petite scoop of vanilla glacé (ice cream) topped the toast. It was the simplest of desserts but so perfectly executed I am inspired to recreate it.

Dining is an experience. Part of a great dining experience is usually one’s company. In this case, I dined alone, which is the antithesis of our international archetype of Paris – OK, sorry for the really elitist use of Big Girl words, but sometimes the English language offers precise words that convey a meaning and a tone with some nice alliteration that I just couldn’t bear to simplify for our Twitt-ified, 140 character-happy world). Yet by dining alone, my focus was the food and wine itself, the restaurant’s atmosphere of dignity yet lack of self-importance, the relaxed cameraderie of two sixtysomething men and a woman catching lingering over dessert, the way the lone waitress and chef greeted chatted up a regular customer through his meal.

I had the sense that I wasn’t a tourist marveling at the City of Light(s) as the world appreciates it, but instead that I was witness to the way the Parisians themselves appreciate it. It was my window into Parisian life in that moment. Without fanfare or movie-style romance.

As I walked through the streets of Paris in the rain (to walk off my dinner and a very long week of work), I experienced Paris as I hadn’t before – alone and more attuned to the city itself and not the aura we have from movies, literature, and our own experiences. Paris is in many ways one of many similar, “international” cities that belong more to the world than they embody their national spirit. But for those of us lucky enough to visit as outsiders, it is different. It is Paris, where everything is somehow more elegant, where street graffiti is more refined – and where the food is on point.

I reflected on that meal – and on this moment in my life, where exhausted – truthfully, burned out, I found myself thinking about my past, present, and future. How my life is, in many ways, so far from that little girl’s hopes dreams, somehow a cosmic joke, cautionary tale, and adventurous triumph of womanhood all at once. This meal in Paris embodied all of that wistfulness, but most of all, it gave me hope and inspiration.

Quite honestly, I’d lost the drive and inspiration that spurred this blog in the first place. Yet this little meal reminded me why I started this blog: For these moments in time that offer an experience with food, with wine, and with culture that allow us to transcend ourselves. That allow us to see there is an entire world beyond ourselves and our experiences waiting to be discovered, shared, and discovered again.

I hope you’ll join me for further adventures of The Culinary Diplomat. In a world that seems to be in the midst of a rebellion against inclusion, against sharing and celebration of our different cultures and traditions, I think the world needs more global communities, not less. But that’s just my perspective…

Maui Wine: Not a complete oxymoron – a novel tasting experience

The idea of Hawaii as a wine producer may seem far-fetched. But Hawaii’s wealth of climatic zones means this tropical paradise has opportunities to create decent, even good wine. Maui Wine offers delicious wines made from Pineapple, as well as up and coming estate grape wines.

Faithful readers, please forgive me for my lack of posts of late. My job has offered great opportunities to travel and collect some very blog worthy food and wine adventures, but it leaves me virtually no time to write them. So here I am writing this post on a rare flight with no WiFi to distract workaholic me!

The drive along the lower slopes of Haleakala

On my recent (ok not so recent as I get around to posting this, and the trip itself was sadly quick!) trip to Hawaii, I needed to quickly learn the island of Maui to prepare for an upcoming event. Having found myself driving around the scenic island in a bright red Ford Mustang, I made a slight detour to the slopes of Haleakala, a cratered volcano, and on it, to Maui Wine’s winery and tasting room. The drive was absolutely stunning, offering views of nearly 2/3 of the island. After a flight from O’ahu and this drive, it also was time to stretch my legs and try some wine.

The tasting room is in a converted, whitewashed cottage surrounded by large deciduous and palm trees. The manicured grounds and picket fences of surrounding Rose Ranch are a reminder of Hawai’i’s colonial, sugar plantation-filled past. The tasting room itself offers a glimpse into the ranch’s past, as well as the lengthy history of winemaking in Maui. The ancestor of Maui Wines, which has changed ownership and branding several times, began winemaking in the late 19th century.

The wines: Pineapple

Pineapple wines are the winery’s most produced and most popular. It’s easy to understand why. Its dry, sparkling Hula O Hawai’i pineapple wine is made in the traditional (champenoise) method. It is a perfect aperitif for a home gathering. The semi-dry Maui Blanc still wine was my favorite. It was full of complex aromas and an almost floral fruitiness. The sweet pineapple Maui Splash wine was smooth and drinkable, not as heavy or sticky sweet as dessert wines.

The wines:  Grape

I tried the Lokelani sparkling rosé, which is part of its deceptively named Rose Ranch line – not made from estate-grown grapes but instead sourced from “all over”, primarily from California. The wine was crisp and tasty, but the disappointment in drinking a California wine that just happened to have been blended in Hawai’i, knocked it down a bit in my esteem.

I had to try one wine made from estate grown grapes, and with Maui’s restrictive liquor laws, I had only one more to sample (note: go with a group so you can try one another’s three samples!). So I chose the Chenin blanc, which is among their most popular (but low production) wines. I’ll just say that it was a good start; it was a crisp, drinkable wine. It lacked the complexity of a Vouvray, a South African chenin, or even my favorite Chenin Blanc blend from California (Pine Ridge).

I would have loved to try all of Maui Wines’ selections. Perhaps next time! While it is off the beaten path (road), make it a stop on the Road To Hana. It’s not every day one can see amazing tropical scenery and taste delicious pineapple wines.

Explore Hawai’i and its Cuisine!

Pineapples, pork, Poké, and Passionfruit – oh my! But there’s so much more to explore in Hawaiian cuisine. From Japanese fusion of Musubi and Poké, Kalua pork, the buttery macadamia nut, the mai tai, a unique form of shaved (“shave”) ice, to its seeming obsession with Spam, cookies and potato chips – at least to pawn off on tourists, we’ll examine some of the Hawaiian islands’ culinary traditions.

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally made it to the state of Hawai’i. Was it worth the hype? It depends what you’re looking for.

View of O’ahu from the air

View of Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head

While the islands share many cultural similarities, not least of which involve their cuisine and the tough-to-pronounce 12-letter language (how are 12 letters so difficult?), each island has its own character. O’ahu is usually everyone’s first stop. Its southern shore features bustling harbors and the prominent joint US base, and Waikiki just east of downtown capital Honolulu. Waikiki is more urban beach town than resort area, with high rise hotels, endless shops, restaurants, and the islands’ only real nightlife. But amazingly enough, for a city, it has a stunning beach with a wide swath of sand and calm, shallow teal waters.

The “Big Island”, AKA Hawaii, lives up to its name in size and geography. It is the youngest island geologically and boasts 13 different microclimates – including the sole chance for snow activities near the peaks of volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The cities of Hilo and Kona bookend opposite sides of the island. The latter gives us the namesake for delicious, nutty Kona coffee.

View from Wailea

View of Maui’s north shore from Haleakala

Heading just west is Maui. Maui is ridiculous. And by ridiculous, I mean paradise. It is much bigger than it appears on a map and is roughly barbell-shaped (ok, a barbell that maybe got melted with liquid magma and squished a bit). The volcanic Haleakala lost its peak long ago, and its crater beckons visitors.

Nearby Maui are lesser islands Lana’i and Moloka’i (In case you’re wondering, all these apostrophes are there to guide your pronunciation. Each vowel gets its own syllable, so the “ai”, “ii” and so forth are not single-sound diphthongs.) These islands are barely habited, but Lana’i has a few resorts.

Hop over O’ahu to the west and you hit adventurer’s paradise, Kaua’i. You will hit the most chickens and roosters per capita, thanks to an unfortunate typhoon that allegedly freed chickens used for cockfighting, and so they procreated like…bunnies? Good thing it’s now the Year of the Rooster!

Ok, island intro over. On to the food!

Fresh fish displayed at Maui’s Morimoto isn’t just a staple at sushi restaurants

Fish, fish, and more:
Ok, so when you are a chain of volcanic islands rising tens of thousands of feet from the sea floor and nearby deep blue waters hosting some of the biggest and best deep sea fish, you know you’re going to have an abundance of the good stuff. Tuna, tuna, tuna. White fish, like mahi mahi. Shrimp. Simply grilled is more than enough, but the shrimp trucks that dot O’ahu’s north shore showcase many styles of preparation. Skewers with garlic butter or soy and pineapple served over a bed of rice is a cheap and delicious meal.

Pineapple heaven:
A Western cultural symbol of hospitality, pineapples and Hawaii are as synonymous as Germany and bratwurst, or Japan and Cherry blossoms. Pineapple plantations aren’t quite as prevalent as they once were, but they still are a huge export and source of Hawaiian pride. You can even find wine made from pineapples – and it’s pretty tasty.

This buttery, decadent nut finds its way into every tourist market, grocery store, gas station prebaked cookie, and almost every restaurant in Hawaii. Whether eaten alone as a snack, baked into Honolulu Cookie Company’s unexpectedly addictive shortbread cookies, worked into the crust on a pan-seated fish fillet, or the secret ingredient in a savory
dish, there’s just something about the macadamia nut that is always a treat.

Perhaps Hawaii’s signature dish, poké is Hawaii’s answer to ceviche. With a soy-laden, teriyaki-like marinade, fresh cubes of raw Ahi tuna and onions, along with optional specialty ingredients are coated with so much flavor. I could eat good Poké every day myself.
These nifty little sushi-like rolls filled with an array of flavors, most often as Spam, fried Spam, or edamame for you vegetarians, are sold at hole-in-the wall Japanese shops throughout O’ahu, particularly in the cities of Honolulu and Waikiki. Unrefrigerated, you’ll want to buy them in the morning to enjoy for an early lunch or mid-morning snack.

Sushi and Ramen:
Of course, if you’re looking for more pure Japanese cuisine, sushi spots and ramen bars abound. My friends raved about hotspot Marukame Udon in Waikiki that is never without a line snaking outdoors – even in a downpour, which was the case when we visited.

The menu at Matsumotos Shave Ice

Ichiban with guava

Shave ice:
Nope, it’s not a typo, in Hawaii, it’s always “shave ice” and not “shaved ice.” That bugs the grammar nut in me, but decorum flies out the window once I’ve had a few bites of the good stuff. Combining traditions from various Asian nations, this shaved ice is nothing like the sno cones or Italian ices that come to mind. The ice is so finely shaved it more resembles fluffy snow at low temperatures and has an oddly creamy texture. Add to it any one of a variety of fruit or even edamame purées, and it would be refreshing and delicious in its own right.

But in Hawaii, one shouldn’t try it without going all out. Sweetened condensed milk is a revelation. Adzuki (red bean) seems another odd topping for the Hawaiian shave ice sundae, but its subtle earthy flavor is a nice balance for the sweet ice. Many other versions bury delicious vanilla ice cream in the volcano-like summit of shaved ice. Overkill? No way! The ice and ice cream are like my sister and me – same components, different flavors. But we work well together (most of the time). For an over the top delicious Hawaiian treat, that, much like a banana split, should be shared among friends, try the Ichiban at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice along O’ahu’s charming north shore town of Haleiwa. It features everything I’ve mentioned, plus a few chewy, tapioca-like Mochi to dip in the toppings, whipped cream, and it is served in an edible tray (it tastes like a cake cone/wafer cone).

Mai tai:
If you’ve ever been to a tiki bar , a Trader Vic’s or other Hawaiian-themed restaurant, you’ve likely been assaulted with a server upselling a premium mai tai. The bad ones are sickly sweet and cheap; the good ones are strong and yet somehow delicate. The best I tried was at Monkeypod Kitchen in Wailea on Maui. It was a perfect balance of dark rum and fruit, and its foamy passion fruit merengue topper was an outstanding addition.

All this talk of Hawai’i is making me crave a mai tai and Poké and an ocean-front beach chair in Maui. The lady can dream…and you can plan your next vacation, even if it’s just a trip to your nearest Hawaiian restaurant.

An introduction to the cuisine of the. Greek Cyclades, Part 2: The dishes

The second in a series featuring Greek cuisine and the restaurants of Mykonos.

Two posts ago, we set the stage for a Greek drama: The wonderful cuisine of Greece. We discovered the raw ingredients that comprise some of Greece’s beloved dishes; today, we will explore the dishes themselves. Some are so beloved they have been adopted the world over, while others may be an undiscovered culinary frontier.

The meats:


Skewers of marinated, grilled meat, or what most know as kebobs (kebabs) are a staple of many culinary traditions. In Greece, they come from a range of meats – pork, chicken, lamb, and sometimes, beef.


These skewers of mixed, seasoned ground meats are ubiquitous in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. In Greece, they’re typically a blend of lamb and beef.

Grilled octopus

The simplest is best. Succulent octopus is at its best when grilled fresh. And Greeks are picky about their octopi, so you’d be challenged to find a poor version of it in the isles.


Langoustine pasta, a common site at restaurants in the Greek Ies



Europeans and South Americans are well aware of the difference between what North Americans know as shrimp and these massive prawns. Here, they often top a steaming bowl of pasta, sometimes in concert with other forms of seafood.


Spreadable herring or cod sounds unappetizing, but it’s fluffy, masculine whipped that puts tuna salad to shame. The secret ingredient is soaked bread (or sometimes another starch, such as potatoes), which gives this meze its thick, creamy consistency.


Pitta bread
The pita pocket bread many of us grew up with is a poor representation of Greece. True Greek pita bread is slightly puffy and chewy – not quite as thick as its Turkish cousin. As an appetizer or compliment to Tzatziki or meat, topped with herbs, it’s all good!


Delicious spanakopita


Spanakopita and Tiropita

No, they’re not stuffed pita breads! These delightful pastries, typically made of flaky phyllo dough, are definitely not a weight loss staple. Spanakopita, at least, incorporates a vegetable: its spinach, herb, and cheese filling with hints of lemon is deliciously complex and not so much as guilt-inducing as tiropita. Tiropita consists of flaky pastry stuffed with a savory soft cheese. It’s up there as one of the most unhealthy things one could eat in Greek cuisine. It is rich, yet addictive. Buttery, tart, salty, tangy with a feta alternative, it surely is a crowd pleaser. And waistline expander.

Kolokithokefthedes, or Zucchini fritters
The Greeks know how to make vegetables fun. If I had tried these as a picky child, even I would have enjoyed them. Like crab cakes, wide variation exists – some by adding more breading, some egg, some garlic. In general, the best are fluffy, almost weightless, and are easy to overdo. Others are quite heavier


I laughed when I first saw “tomato balls” on an English-language menu. Really? I couldn’t picture anything other than fried green tomatoes. Then, I tried them. I would call them an expressionist’s version of tomato. Not unlike the most heavily traded zucchini fritters, most variants were more like heavily breaded fritters or croquettes, where the tomato enhanced the delicious, carbohydrate laden base than the other way around. Still, they were way more delicious than your average tomato!

Calling it a condiment is insulting. The irresistible combination of thick, Greek yogurt, fresh cucumber, garlic, and dill is on every Greek menu, yet every chef or cook seems to put his or her own spin on it – perhaps a bit of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, or a heavier dose of garlic. Good enough to eat on its own, Greeks love to slather French fries in it, and I love scooping it up with Greek pitta or topping burgers with it.


Greek salad


Greek salad…
…is another item poorly misinterpreted by the Western Hemisphere. We overdo it out west, with our romaine, black olives, and heavy dressing laden with fillers. 


Another variant of Greek salad

The Greeks go simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta with herbs, thick croutons, olive oil, and perhaps a touch of vinegar. But with that simplicity comes a staggering range of variations. Substitute torn, chewy pitta for baked bread, and the result is more like an Italian panzanella.



Oh, baklava! Your comforting honey and cinnamon-drenched pine nut or walnut filling and flaky phyllo layers are one of my favorite desserts that do not involve chocolate. What separates it from other Mediterranean, Turkish, or Arab versions? Pistachios are far more common in the Levant than in Greece.


Doughnut holes on steroids are a good way to describe these airy clouds of fried dough, drenched with – you guessed it – honey. They may be a bit messy, but they are a delicious mess!

If these Greek specialties don’t make you want to run out and Yelp the best Greek restaurant in town – or travel to Greece, I don’t know what will do so!