Sunday, January 30, 2011

Washington DC - Pho

Washington DC in the dead of winter.  I've come to meet my new nephew, so this week's chronicles will be about this great city. The only time I've seen DC as beautiful is when the Japanese cherry blossoms are in bloom in April. As my plane lands in National Airport, a black and white landscape lays beneath us - elegant and speechless. The monuments sit proudly, surrounded by white sheets of snow.

My request as I greet my parents at the airport: pho, please! 

Pho is a Vietnamese soup which is sent by the gods to make all of our hearts jump up in glee and delight in blissful comfort. I had a major craving for the stuff, but not just any pho. I wanted Pho 75 pho. Pho 75 is a chain of restaurants in the metropolitan DC area that has won the Washingtonian Best Bargain Restaurant Award every year since 1987. It only offers pho (20 varieties of it)and Vietnamese drinks and desserts, and is cash-only. The owners run a brilliant business and have succeeded in making most Washingtonians addicted to their soup. If you've lived in DC for any significant period of time, you are most likely addicted to pho.
Pho is served with a choice of bean sprouts, purple basil, green chillies, and lemon. You can also add plum sauce or a red chili sauce called Sriracha, which is also an excellent addition to many dishes.
My father, who travels often to Vietnam for work, told me that he's not tasted such a delicious pho in Vietnam as the one served at Pho 75. The epitome of comfort foods, the pho beef broth has a unique taste, perfumed by the aroma of purple basil. The beef brisket strips are thin and tender, and the noodles are simply delicious. Some opt for the more intense tendon or tripe variety, but I like my brisket. 

So, next time you're in DC...the Smithsonian can wait until you have a nice bowl of pho.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Colombians will sigh when they read this entry because it's nothing new to them. However, I want to share this lovely recipe, and hope it motivates someone out there to finally buy those plantains they've seen at the grocery store, but never knew what to do with.

Once again, I was inspired at my local vegetable and fruit stand. This time, the plantains called out to me.
Plantains are much like bananas but much larger. They're part of many Colombian meals. We eat them when they're ripe and also when they're green. When they're green, we make patacones, which are by far my favorite side dish ever, so I'll write an entry about them soon. Patacones are green plantains that are diced, pressed flat, deep fried, and sprinkled with salt.
Bananas vs plantains
This is a super easy recipe, and a great side dish to accompany a steak and salad dinner. 

Ripe plantains
Guava Paste

Bake in 350 degrees for about 45 minutes until the paste has melted and caramelized, and until they look like this:
Ripe plantains with guava paste 
In the US, guava paste can be found in most Latin grocery stores. In case you can't find it, use brown sugar.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mexican raw cacao beans...

Anti-oxidant super stars.

A friend recently brought back some raw cacao beans from Mexico. He stored them is a plastic container, and when I popped the top, the decadent scent of pure cocoa enveloped me. Each bean has a thin shell (like that of an egg), and inside is a small, dark brown bean. They are quite bitter, (at this stage haven't yet been transformed into chocolate) and crunchy. If you are a dark chocolate lover like my husband and I, you will probably be able to deal with the bitterness. If you're used to milk chocolate, you may find it almost impossible to eat. 
I added my son's crayon for dimension purposes.
If you do manage to get past the strong taste, you'll be giving your body a magnificent anti-oxidant and vitamin C boost. Check out this article about how these little cacao beans can serve as the best vitamin pills. 

I love Mexico. I had the pleasure of living there about ten years ago, and as an anthropologist, was fascinated by its past, present, and future. I studied the Aztec and Maya cultures at length, so I appreciate what these indigenous traditions have done for modern day Mexico...and the world. One of the Aztec's most fantabulous contributions to the guessed it...CHOCOLATE! They made a drink from it, and called it xocolatl, in their Nahuatl language. They used cacao beans as currency, and it was not until the Spanish conquest that chocolate was exported to Europe. 

I vote for chocolate to be used as currency once again - can you imagine?

*Try Ghirardelli's Intense Dark Sea Salt Soiree - to die for.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Trinidad and Tobago street food entry #1

Trinidadian street food is a mix of Indian, Creole, and other yummy culinary traditions. This Saturday, my husband and I had a craving for the ultimate Trinidadian comfort food - Corn Soup. 

Corn Soup is sold in giant vats in makeshift tents by the side of the road, or, in this case, at the street food bazaar that magically appears Friday to Sunday evenings at the Queen's Park Savannah. Usually a massive, empty, grassy lot, this part of the Savannah transforms into a kind of tent city, where vendors park their mini vans, open the trunk, put up a tent, and set up shop to sell home made Trinidadian goodies. 

We made our way straight to the corn soup lady before she ran out of the good stuff. Corn soup reminds me of Colombian ajiaco. Both of these soups are heart-warming, guaranteed-to-make-you-smile broths in which corn plays a vital role. Corn soup has a few more spices with a bit of a kick, however, and is served with pieces of corn-on-the-cob and what they call "dumplings", which are small balls made of dough. The soup is made of dahl (red lentils), pumpkin (like the one I told you about last time), corn, and hot pepper. Delish.

Also available at the Savannah street food tent city (I baptized it like this - I don't actually know what its called) were cow heel soup, chicken wings, bbq pork, pig tail, fresh fruit juice, and something called souse. It can be made with different proteins, but the base is usually the same - a kind of pickled cucumber sauce with spices and who knows what else. This vendor was offering chicken feet souse, and to be honest, I couldn't bring myself to taste it. I have tried souse made with a part of a pig I couldn't even identify, and to be honest, it was not my favorite thing in the world. Actually, it was downright nasty. It was like a pork intestine ceviche gone awry. 

Having waved goodbye to the souse, and holding on to our beloved corn soup, we returned to our SUV, opened the trunk and joined the other street food tailgaters on that warm, Trinidadian Saturday afternoon. Children were running around and in the background you could hear the boom boom boom of the soca beat...Carnival time is here. Are you ready?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Did you know you can eat the skin of a butternut squash?

Well, you can!

Yesterday I moseyed on over to my local fruit and vegetable stand to get some inspiration for dinner. 

I found some gigantic pumpkins. There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins in the world, and I have no idea what these are called. I do know that Trinidadians use them a lot and refer to them simply as "pumpkin". I use them to make quinoa and pumpkin soup, which I'll tell you about later. On this day, however, I was overwhelmed by the thought of lugging one of these babies onto my car, up to my apartment, and somehow cutting it up. Can you imagine? If you notice in the photo, the pumpkins are bigger than the bucket on the right-hand side. I would need a machete like the one my coconut water buddy uses. I'm kidding, you can ask for them to be cut up for you. 

But I wasn't in the mood for these big mamas. I wanted something a little more tender, sweeter... I needed a side dish, and butternut squash seemed to make more sense. 

If you have ever doubted buying a nice butternut squash because the thought of having to cut off that hard skin overwhelms you, fear no more. You can eat the skin! So this is what I made:

Roasted Butternut Squash 

Butternut squash
1/4 cup Brown sugar 
Olive Oil

Cut up the butternut squash into one-inch pieces. Place in roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil and brown sugar. Bake for one hour in 400 degrees or until golden and the brown sugar has made the edges of the squash caramelize. No need to peel the squash. You can even leave the seeds - they'll also roast! But you may need more oven time to make sure they are tender enough to eat.

Buen provecho! This means Bon Appetit in Spanish, by the way. Incidentally, how do you translate that into English? 

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Have you ever heard of these little guys? Well, they're beautiful and delicious little bits of tropical heaven. 

I was first introduced to them by our good friend who owns three still life paintings of pomeracs (also known as "malay apples") by Che Lovelace. I fell in love with the paintings and requested Che, one of Trinidad's foremost artists, a surfer, and a friend, to paint one for us. It turns out he had painted a fourth piece in the pomerac series in 2006. Check this out. Our gorgeous pomerac still life and Che Lovelace original which now hangs in our living room:

Che Lovelace pomeracs, 2006

As you can see, they look like little magenta pears. They're in season now, so I finally had the chance to taste them for myself. I picked some up by the side of the road today.  Devon (photographed below) sold me four little pomeracs. I took a bite, and loved it. Underneath the merlot-colored skin is a pearly-white flesh that tastes like tangy pear. I gave my 21-month-old son a taste, and he loved it and asked for more. 

I've not seen them anywhere other than Trinidad, but I've been told they also grow in Suriname. I've read that any food of purple/blue color (eggplants, blueberries, beets, and I'm guessing pomeracs), help reduce the risk of heart disease, reverse memory loss, and may prevent cancer.

Pomeracs: refreshing, healthy, and simply adorable. Maybe they'll become the next pomegranates? I'm sure they're related.

*About the roti's coming soon.

Two links to Che Lovelace's work:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ode to Coconut Water

During my recent trip to the US, I discovered that coconut water is becoming available in many supermarkets. I heard people talk about its benefits, speaking as though they just discovered the stuff. It's becoming a chic thing to drink.

When I was little in Cartagena, my sister and I used to ask our grandparents' gardener to get us some coconuts from the palm trees above our heads. He would climb the trunk like, well, like a monkey. He would hug the palm tree with all fours and scatter up the trunk quickly and barefoot. I never saw him wearing shoes. He would use his giant, rusty machete to chip away at the top of the coconut and hand it to us. Once we drank the water, he chipped at the coconut a bit more, and we'd eat the fleshy inside lining. Yum.

After a quick internet search, I found that among its benefits, coconut water increases metabolism (yes, it helps you lose weight!), helps fight viruses, reduces the risk of cancer, promotes your immune system, improves circulation, and naturally re-hydrates your body after exercising, among many others. 

Trinidadians, like many other inhabitants of tropical climates, have been drinking, and selling, coconut water forever. It's typical for hosts to offer you coconut water when you go to their home for a visit. One of my favorite things to see along the Queen's Park Savannah, the largest park in Port of Spain, are coconut carriages. 

After a long walk around the savannah (the perimeter of which is 2.2 miles and makes up the largest traffic roundabout in the world), people stop at these carriages for a sip of coconut water.

Today I met a man who's been selling coconut water at the savannah for over 40 years. With a machete that looked a lot like the one my grandparents' gardener had, he chipped off the top, and I had a delicious drink. Perfect for the 87 degree afternoon.

I asked my new friend (I'll visit him again soon to ask his name) what he thought about the bottled coconut water you find at the grocery store these days. He told me that they have to add preservatives to the water because it goes bad quickly after it's taken out of the coconut. And besides, he said "It not da same! People keep comin'."

My local grocery stores carries 2-liter bottles of coconut water.

Not sure if you find coconut water as interesting as I do, but hopefully you appreciate its benefits. So go out and get yourself a rusty machete and chop up some coconuts...or go to Whole Foods and get yourself a tetra pack of the stuff.

Check out this link for more on the benefits of coconut water:

Next entry: My brother-in-law has asked me to investigate roti, a typical Trinidadian dish. Your wish is my command, dear brother. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Let's talk a bit about Trinidad and Tobago, where my adventure begins.

I'm sure you can wikipedia T&T ( as effectively as I can, but let me give you a little summary:

The two islands have a population of around 1.3 million and have an area of 1,980 sq miles. They are the southern-most of the Caribbean islands, and are very close to Venezuela. T&T was a Spanish colony and finally a British colony, so the national language is English. 

What fascinates me most about the country (which got its independence in 1962) is its fabulous mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Indo-Trinidadians and Tobagonians are the largest ethnic group (40%), which are descendants of indentured laborers who came from India to replace freed African slaves. Many Indo-Trinidadians continue to practice Indian and Hindu cultural traditions. Divali, for example, is a national holiday.

Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians are the second largest ethnic group (37.5%). There are also descendants of European immigrants from Spain, Portugal, France, China, Syria, and Lebanon, among others.

The result of this fantastic melting pot of people is darn good food.

Typical street food includes roti, doubles, pilau rice, etc., etc., etc. More of this to come...

For now, I'll leave you with the view from our apartment. We often see rainbows hugging the emerald mountains that surround us. Not a bad spot to write a blog, eh?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Le Cordon Bleu = The Plan

This journey begins in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago. As wild parrots fly by my window to make their morning calls, the French Embassy telephones to inform me that my student visa was granted.
The Plan: 

Move to Paris for eight months to study Le Grand Diplôme, the highest degree in culinary and pastry arts, at Le Cordon Bleu.


This crazy idea started when I was telling my husband (for the millionth time) about my dream to go to culinary school. But I didn't want to go to just any culinary school. I wanted to go to the culinary school. Le Cordon Bleu. And I didn't want to go to just any Cordon Bleu. I wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the city that has inspired some of the most influential and creative people of all time.

He, being the most generous, supportive, and fantastic man in the world, said, "Do it!"


In order to tell you the whole story about this dream of mine, I should start from the beginning. I remember eating (and enjoying) spinach crepes at age six, when my friends thought they were "yucky" and "weird". I was raised eating escargots and drinking Möet Chandon (even if a bit watered down) before the age of ten. The protagonists of this exposure were my mother, a fantastic cook, and my father, a fantastic eater.

I eat street food, restaurant food, and everything in between. Macaroni and cheese from a box (which I first ate at the age of 26, when my husband introduced me to the stuff), to warthog in peanut sauce in a remote village in Equatorial Guinea, Africa. Fat ants in Colombia and fried grasshoppers in Mexico. Boeuf Bourguignon in a Parisian cafe, and lovely spots of tea in London, Karachi, and Beijing.

I was born and raised in Colombia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. My family is from Cartagena, the most beautiful place in the world. Cartagena's history dates back forever and ever as a melting pot for West Africans, Middle-easteners, Native Americans, and Europeans, among others. The food of Cartagena is a product of its diverse immigration history. A common dinner in Cartagena, for example, is a pot roast cooked in the French style, served with coconut rice and plantains, which are West African dishes that I also ate in Equatorial Guinea, Africa, by the way. But I'll leave that for another blog entry. 

Inspired by the social context in which I grew up, I went on to study two Masters degrees in social anthropology, one at the London School of Economics (LSE). The LSE is a petri dish for international development workers, one of which I became. I worked at an NGO in Washington DC on education programs in Africa and Latin America. A couple of years later, I moved to Trinidad and Tobago because my husband was offered a job working for an international organization. I left my job and dedicated myself to being a wife and mother. Shortly after our son was born, I realized I didn't want to continue working at the same pace as before he was born. That's when I considered realizing my dream about attending culinary school.

I'd like to think of myself as an amateur food anthropologist. I have much to learn, however, and thus my plan to become a chef. I am not a foodie, nor am I an expert in anything. What I am is an ethnographer who enjoys learning about food, its history and context, and who wants to become a chef. In this blog, I plan to chronicle my experience living in Paris and studying at Le Cordon Bleu as well as talk about the food of my travels. Trinidadian cuisine, for example, is fascinating to me, so look for entries about it during the next few weeks before I head off to Paris.
Here we go...