A Culinary Visit to the Riviera Maya

I’ve never stayed at an all-inclusive resort before — it’s not really what I imagined to be my scene — so I had no preconceived notions of the quality, or lack thereof, of the culinary offerings at one. When I visited IBEROSTAR Grand Paraíso*, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, last month, I was told that achieving a heightened reputation in gastronomy was the the brand’s mission. The Spanish hotel and resort company has released a cookbook that features recipes from their worldwide resorts — from Cuba to Mexico to Morocco — and have launched a new initiative of special events, training courses for guests.

I ate braised red snapper in pig’s trotter sauce at L’atelier gourmet restaurant, and shrimp agnoloti at the Italian Venezia. At the cooking demonstration in the resort’s Surf & Turf steakhouse, I learned how to slice a black Iberian pig’s leg and watched chefs trained in some of the best schools in Europe (and with a background in Michelin-starred restaurants, including Spain’s three-star Akelarre) prepare pumpkin flowers stuffed with lobster; paella; and a whiskey flavored crème brûlée with chocolate soufflé, coffee ice cream, and Halls menthol baked between silpat sheets garnish. Each course accompanied by pairings selected by IBEROSTAR‘s Cuban sommelier, Yamir Pelegrino Rodriguez, who holds both a law degree from the University of Havana and the 2006 title from the Gourmand Cookbooks & Wines Awards.  

Here’s a few photos from the trip:

Cooking demonstration
Cooking demonstration
Preparing paella
Preparing paella
The resort
The resort

IMG_3172

The beach
The beach
Bee-keeping at a Mayan wellness retreat
Bee-keeping at a Mayan wellness retreat
Lunch at a Mayan village
Lunch at a Mayan village
Nohoch Mul pyramid
Nohoch Mul pyramid

*Disclosure: I visited the Riviera Maya as a guest of IBEROSTAR and the Riviera Maya Tourism Board

 

 

 

 

Four memories mas preciosos from Mexico City

Street art. Photo by author.

While I have done  a bit of traveling in the last few years, my trip to Mexico City was, according to the following rules, my first vacation for quite a while: I didn’t go to work, I didn’t go under the obligation of visiting anyone, and I didn’t go with the intention of setting up home.

My choice of vacation spot had not impressed one of the doctors at my work. “Mexico City? That’s not relaxing!” She said. Where some may find relaxation on the beach, I find boredom easily. I travel to not be bored; I travel to find new stuff; to learn, and to collect memories.

These are just a few of my favourites from one week in Mexico.

Casa Azula: Frida Kahlo’s House

Frida Kahlo is all over D.F: the city where she was born and died. And of every place you see her image, none is so significant as that of the Casa Azul, where her life began and ended.

La Casa Azul. Photo by author.

Pre-Columbian sculptures and Communist memorabilia is scattered through the house, as well as items intensely personal — her corset, her bed, her kitchen — and functional — her easel and paintbrushes.

Frida’s paint and paintbrushes. Photo by author.

I felt a special atmosphere here, as if her spirit lingered in her timeless collection of items — of memories left behind. Each of those items tell a story and guided me through the house and through Frida’s life.

Frida’s bookshelf. Photo by author.

Dulce Patria

I was fortunate to travel to Mexico City with Julie, a writer whose mind, energy and professionalism I admire and envy. Julie had an article commissioned about Martha Ortiz Chapa, owner and executive of Dulce Patria in the Polanco district, and I got to tag along.

Martha delighted me with her talks about her passion for the femininity and sensuality of Mexican cuisine, as well as her love of literature and opera. I adored her. We got to sample Dulce Patria’s current menu — the menu changes monthly, and in September reflected el mes patrio (the patriotic month) — which included chiles en nogada, a traditional dish of poblano chile filled with shredded meat, fruit and spices, and topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. Together the chile, cream and pomegranate seeds form the colours of the Mexican flag.

Chiles en nogada. Photo by author.

We had a dessert of rice pudding.

Dessert. Photo by author.

Then after dessert came the alegrías, small Mexican sweets presented on a tray under a spinning wooden airplane toy.

Alegrias. Photo by author.

I can’t miss mentioning the expression of powerful femininity in Dulce Patria’s logo.

Dulce Patria logo.

Lucha Libre

Lucha Libre. Photo by author.

I’m not sure whether or not the novelty of la lucha wears off after the first visit or two, so if it does, I am especially grateful to Julie for taking me along to the Arena Mexico on a Tuesday evening to watch grown men in spandex, disguised with masks and ridiculous names, throw each other around and out of a wrestling ring, posture, and kick each other in the balls. I was hugely entertained; by the luchadores as much as the passionate crowd members who screamed and cursed, and by the awkward looking bikini-clad card girls.

Lucha promo. Photo by author.

El Grito

It was entirely by accident, but I found myself in Mexico City for the Independence Day celebrations of September 15th. The week leading up to the big day had been a treat; seeing flags hung from so many buildings, novelty costumes, hats and Zapata-esque moustaches on sale on every street corner, and bakery window displays stacked high with patriotic cakes.

A couple of days prior, Julie had an interview with Miguel Angel Escobar Ramirez, Food and Beverage Manager of Hotel Camino Real by the airport, for a Fox News Latino article. Escobar shared with us some interesting insight into the depth of preparation involved in putting on an Independence Day party. The three most important ingredients, he told us, are decorations, music and food — as you can see from the photo, he supplied the decorations and food … as well as what must be the fourth: the tequila.

A patriotic lunch at El Camino Real. Photo by author.

And so to the day itself. The number of people in traditional costume or moustaches, or with green, red and white-painted cheeks steadily increased throughout the day and culminated with a gathering of thousands, in the zocalo (main square) in the evening. What a shame to watch as so many beautifully put together outfits, hairstyles, and face paintings got drenched in a torrential downpour that didn’t let up until the early morning. The vendors selling inelegant ponchos, however, had a great night of sales.

Zocalo 15 de septiembre. Photo by author.

We all stood together, in ponchos, squatting under the umbrellas of strangers, in the rain watching Jenni Rivera (a glamorous Mexican-American singer who exuded glamour even while pulling her soaking wet hair off her face and wiping away her running mascara) until at 11 p.m. President Calderon marched to the Palacio Nacional balcony to repeat the “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms made by Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 that began the struggle for independence from Spain, finally achieved in 1821.

I am no Calderon fan, but his grito (the last of his presidency) gave me goosebumps. As he repeated the names of the heroes of Mexico in a call and response with the crowd crying “Viva!” after each, I choked. It was a heartrending, precious experience I would love to repeat some day.

Zocalo 15 de septiembre. Photo by author.

I fight the dissolution of these memories as I go back to my normal life; I want to hold on to them forever. I take a moment to stop and close my eyes so that I can envision the green, white and red patriotic decorations scattered around the city, hung from balconies and draped across shoulders. I imagine that I can smell chiles, hear the musical pitch of street vendors and taste thick, sweet atole.

Deep underneath the sensations of Latin America is a twisting regret. I could live here, I think to myself  and I am reminded of the one year that I did. When I lived in Chile I was young and desperately missed a boyfriend I had left back in London. I had arrived in Valparaiso in August of 2001 and immediately began to count down the days, weeks, months until I would return to London. It is with a knot of shame that I try to avoid acknowledging that my time there was not as well spent as it could have been. I had a head full of London. The rhythm of Latin America, that I now romanticise, was too unchic; it stuttered and started where London’s had effortlessly flowed. I had an eating disorder and planned my days around trips to the gym and stared down the little bites of cookies and chocolates that came, without fail, with my espresso or cortado (cortados only occasionally, though: imagine the calories in the steamed milk!)

I travelled far and wide; from Iquique to Tierra del Fuego to Rio de Janeiro and to Montevideo. I accumulated books, knowledge, friends and modismos. I threw myself deep into the places I only passed through. I was enormously happy when I was moving, yet living in Valparaiso, which was travel without traveling, was a rhythm of which I delayed in catching the groove.

After a while I stopped counting down the days until I left and began to settle into my life in Chile. But, still, I regret that I was never as fully engaged with Chile as I could have, should have been.

Perhaps that is why I hold so tightly on to my memories of my all-too-brief visit to Mexico City.

Good Food in Columbus: Japanese, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese

My memories of Japan travel across all the senses, sometimes pausing on just one. Taste. Cool soba on a hot summer day; oden in the winter; fresh sushi from a tiny shop in Tokyo’s Hiroo district; sweet mochi from the nameless store on the backstreets of Nishi Azabu, and yakitori at the Azabu Juban festival.

Vendor at Azabu Juban Festival, Tokyo. Photo by author.
Breakfast at a ryokan in Kyoto. Photo by author.

Last year a little takoyaki stand sprung up on Columbus’ North High Street. The married couple (she is from Japan and he is Korean-American) had run a successful Japanese crepe truck the year before, and revived the name, Fresh Street, at their new venture. Popping the piping octopus-filled hot dough balls into my mouth for the first time late afternoon last summer transported my senses back to the street vendor on the neon-lit street of Osaka where I tried takoyaki for the first time. It was that good.

Sadly, Fresh Street were just borrowing the street stand on afternoons from the Mickey’s Late Night Slice pizza vendor, who decided they wanted to expand their business into the daytime, and now the takoyaki stand is no more.

But, joyfully, Fresh Street is open for business at the Double Happiness bar in the Brewery District, serving yakitori, kushiyaki and small-plate Japanese bar snacks. And, as of this week, they will be serving a special lunch-only menu too. As for takoyaki, I have been getting my fix at Tensuke Express next door to the Japanese grocery on Henderson and Kenny.

Fresh Street at Double Happiness. Photo by author.
Double Happiness decor. Photo by author.

I had been looking forward to visiting Columbus’ Asian Festival the other month and widening my appreciation for Columbus’ surprisingly healthy Asian food scene. But I had the flu for three days and missed it. I have done my own investigation around the city and these are the best places I have found so far:

Arirang, 1526 Bethel Road

There is whole bunch of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai businesses on and around Bethel Road. It seems to be some kind of hub.  I absolutely love the Korean market, Arirang. Here, you can pick up Korean groceries at the grocery store then sit down for a meal at the tiny attached restaurant. My favourite dish so far is the Dolsot Bibimbap (a mixed rice, vegetable and meat dish served in a hot stone bowl). All dishes come with traditional banchan, a selection of small dishes that change every day, and hot barley tea is complimentary.

Bangkok, 3277 Refugee Road

Bangkok Restaurant. Photo by author.

Like Arirang, Bangkok Restaurant is attached to a grocery store. This Thai restaurant lies in unappealing surroundings but is filled with charming images of Thailand and delightful service staff. While Bangkok offers a handful of Chinese-American dishes as well as Thai, I feel that to order them here would be a shame. I liked the pad prick pao ground pork dish.

Lan Viet, North Market, 59 Spruce Street

Lan and her husband Thanh Lee run the Lan Viet stall at the North Market. Their pho is the best, I think, in the city — though the banh mi and coffee is better at Mi Li in Northland.

New York City in Pictures

Subway. Photo by author.

The first time I ever went to New York, I travelled with my friend Jane and a torn out map of Sex in the City locations. In my early twenties, finishing up college in the early years of the millennium, I thought that a designer shopping, martini sipping lifestyle was what I was supposed to be moving towards because that was the message I was reading via the fashion magazines I used to buy.

The first time I went to New York City alone, a train conductor spied me puzzling over a map and slyly asked if I was running away from home.

I usually try to return to NYC every year, but vapid thoughts of SATC stay where they belong: the early 2000s. I don’t visit to run away anymore, although I often visit alone. Strangely I find a closeness in the big city; that there’s a space for me among the differences I see between everyone. Now that I live in a city where I have to drive everywhere, riding the subway gives me a feeling of connection that is missing in my current (temporary) hometown.

My relationship with the city has changed in the ten years since my first visit. NYC isn’t something to be feared or conquered; I don’t approach it as if attending a job interview anymore.

The Jane Hotel. Photo by author.

I stayed at the Jane Hotel in the West Village. The red-brick building used to house sailors and was occupied by Titanic survivors in 1912. Staff are dressed in red old-timey bellhop uniforms — the lady that checked me in owned hers; complementing it with huge red-framed oval glasses. The rooms are tiny, befitting the nautical theme that runs throughout, and country accents, such as a stuffed peacock and antlers in the lobby, lend a bohemian air.

The Jane Hotel. Photo by author.

During the day I took the subway to and from Brooklyn.

Skyline from Subway. Photo by author.

Walked through Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park.

Brooklyn Cherry Blossom. Photo by author.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by author.
Crabapple. Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo by author.

I walked along the High Line.

High Line. Photo by author.
Along the High Line. Photo by author.
High Line. Photo by author.
Along the High Line. Photo by author.
Bird feeders along High Line. Photo by author.
Along the High Line. Photo by author.

…And through the streets of Manhattan.

Manhattan sky. Photo by author.
NYC. Photo by author.

I saw Pulp at Radio City Music Hall.

Pulp at Radio City Music Hall. Photo by author.

I went to the Weegee exhibit at the International Center of Photography, and the Diego Rivera and Cindy Sherman exhibitions at the MOMA.

Cindy Sherman at the MOMA. Photo by author.

I ate pho at Saigon Shack, cupcakes at Molly’s, breakfast at the Breslin, drank coffee at Stumptown and a Dark and Stormy at Commonwealth.

Dark n’ Stormy. Photo by author.

I drank a cocktail called Paris is Burning with Strippertweets, Maura and Melissa at the NoMad Hotel,’s Library Bar, a spicy hot chocolate at the Chocolate Bar and ate two Crack Pies from Momofuku Milk Bar.

Crack Pie. Photo by author.

Celebrate Local/International

Romanian dancer. Photo by Karen Dion
Celebrate Local pop-up store at Easton. Photo by Karen Dion

“Local” is huge here in Ohio. We’ve got the farmers’ market CSAs; the microbreweries; microdistilleries; the micro coffee roasters, food trucks and great independent restaurants like Surly Girl. There’s a pop-up store open right now at Easton called, appropriately, Celebrate Local, that sells only handmade and artisan products made in Ohio.

It was a comfort to me to find a proudly local scene. Moving here from Hawaii made me feel deflated, like, what is there in Columbus, OH? The Midwest doesn’t really have the greatest reputation and it was easy for friends back in Hawaii to sympathize with my unwelcome move: “Oh well. At least you’ll be near New York.” I felt as though I was moving to a place that just wasn’t good enough.

Well, what do you know; it really isn’t that bad. Columbus is truly waking up and evolving into a destination. Look, even the National Geographic and the Chicago Tribune say so. We’ve even got some of the world’s best ice cream right here — what impresses me even more about Jeni’s is that, according to one of their ice cream ambassadors that I was talking to, it stays busy even in winter.

We are also a bit of a cultural melting pot, which is something I didn’t really realize (outside of the impressively diverse ethnic restaurant scene) before attending the 56th annual Columbus International Festival at the Veteran’s Memorial last weekend. Groups representing Somalia, India, Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, Ecuador, Rwanda and at least 70 other countries opened up booths offering food, crafts and general information from their native lands while troupes performed traditional dances on the main stage.

For more about the festival: Celebrating Diversity at the Columbus International Festival

Romanian dancer. Photo by Karen Dion
Indian dancers. Photo by Karen Dion
Russian candy. Photo by Karen Dion