By Rob Packer

The chocolate digestive

If Pandora was alive today and living in Britain, the chances are that her famous box of troubles would have a different shape: a roll about 20cm long and about 5 in circumference with a red plastic wrapper. This all sounds pretty harmless, but once opened, rest assured, it would be Hesiod all over again: everything all escapes in one go and impossible to shut—or put back in the cupboard to save until tomorrow. Every house in Britain has at least one of these Pandora’s rolls and it’s really no surprise: the things are delicious.

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Brazilian Hand Rolls

By Rob Packer

It almost goes without saying that sushi will be available wherever you go. Standards might vary (wildly), the preferred variety might be different (in Colombia, it seems to be mostly futomaki, for example), you might not want to eat it; but there it will be. With its large Japanese population (see this blog), Brazil is no exception, even though I think this probably has more to do with global trends in places like Florianópolis. And there are two things about sushi-eating here that seem particularly Brazilian: the rodízio and the temakeria.

The rodízio de sushi, or all-you-can-eat, is something I doubt I’ll be doing again. It conflicted with a certain bias of mine towards the paramount importance of the freshness of the ingredients—as I’ve mentioned before, seeing the staff pack the nigiri in the fridge is something that no-one should see. Added to that, different prices depending on whether you eat maki, nigiri or sashimi just seems plain wrong.

On the other hand, the temakeria is a lot more to my liking: these places serve mainly or entirely hand rolls, or temaki. In Hong Kong or the UK (I’ve never been to Japan), for example, temaki always seemed hard-to-come-by and relatively expensive: in Brazil, it’s a key part of the menu and is normally decent value for money. People have told me that in pre-temakeria days, sushi was too expensive for most people; a Brazilian temaki is just about meal-sized (so is far bigger than any I’ve ever seen in other countries) and available for about the price of a burger.

It’s not all that authentic, it’s certainly not gourmet and borders on fast food, but it’s definitely tasty.


The everything temaki.

The tuna one.

Well, yes, it is a bit like fast food.

Temax Temakeria, Germano Wendhausen #190, Florianópolis

Food: We had two temaki. The Max Temax was a bit overloaded with too many types of sashimi, as it included pieces of salmon, tuna, prawn, kani and octopus; the Atum especial, on the other hand, was pieces of tuna with cream cheese and a touch of tabasco. Neither included much rice at all, so were low on authenticity, but the food is good overall and I’ve been told that other places aren’t nearly as good.

Price: Where the temakeria wins is on price: each temaki cost R$14 (US$8, £5).

Fruit in Brazil

By Rob Packer

Your first trip to the juice shop in Brazil is an intimidating experience: firstly, the range is so large—30 to 40 options seem to be the norm—that trying something you already know seems like a waste. Secondly, you have no idea what anything is, which makes your first problem worse.

A stall in São Paulo's Mercado Público, where you can find every fruit you've ever dreamt again (except durian)

If you learn Portuguese from a Spanish-speaking background, you quickly learn that lots of words are similar and lots of words are very different: fruit names are the latter. You reason, for example, that guanábana and Guanabara, the bay where Rio sits, look pretty similar, so you guanábana must be the Portuguese word, rather than the pregnant-looking graviola. And this is before you get to cajá, caju, guaraná, acerola, or pitanga, some of the many that barely seem to exist outside of Brazil.

As one of the world’s megadiverse countries, Brazil, like Colombia or Mexico, has an incredible range of fruit going from European staples like apples to açaí: it would take years to get to know all the fruit of Brazil, so I’m not going to try; what I will try, though, is to use a few blogs to scratch the surface of the fruit available in the country.

Bosnian Coffee

By Rob Packer

One of the first things I noticed arriving in Bosnia & Herzegovina—Mostar is in Herzegovina—is that the coffee’s different. In Split, for example, people seem to spend all afternoon sipping espressos at cafés on the Riva (the waterfront), so much so that I started to wonder if half-days are the norm in Croatia. Bosnians drink espresso too, but far more interesting was my first cup of bosanska kafa (kava is the Croatian word I was told later in the day), which I was offered while I checked my email. When it arrived, it was something I didn’t think was even possible: Turkish coffee with milk[1].

Bosanska kafa (Bosnian coffee). Also known as Turkish coffee, Greek coffee, Cypriot coffee and many other names.

This kind of culinary innovations based on immigration, colonization and invasion fascinate me Read more of this post

Al-Madina de Barranquilla

By Rob Packer

I always thought the word sirio from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of those words that I probably didn’t understand. Surely there weren’t Syrians on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and this was some kind of metaphor? When I found out I was coming to Barranquilla and started doing some research, I realized that García Márquez was being serious: there is a large community of Colombians with Syrian and Lebanese origins on the Caribbean coast, and Shakira, a Barranquilla native is easily the community’s most famous member.

As the post-film conversation at last week´s Cine Club turned to food, someone mentioned the word quibbe. Were they talking about kibbeh, a favourite Lebanese snack made of ground meat and spices? They were and told me that Barranquilla is full of Middle Eastern restaurants serving quibbe, tahine and tabule, and that it were delicious. Years of average Middle Eastern food in Hong Kong and the thought of kibbeh must’ve made my face light up because a trip to a Lebanese restaurant was planned for the next night.

Outside Los Trigales, an Arabic restaurant in the north of Barranquilla.

The next night’s dinner at Los Trigales was as delicious as I’d be promised it would be. We had a tahine to share for a starter, which looked and tasted like chickpea and tahini-based hummus, rather than the sesame paste that makes up tahini. I’m not sure where the difference in name comes from, but good food trumps all. The mixed plate of Arab food fulfilled my cravings for kibbeh and stuffed vegetables, but the real hit of the evening was a complete surprise: a garlic paste mixed with mayonnaise that spread its garlicky goodness on anything it touched it. By the end, Mar and I were almost eating it with a spoon.

Tahine (hummus) with meat, Barranquilla-style.

The plato árabe mini-mixto. A selection of kibbeh, tahine (again) and stuffed aubergines, cabbage and vine leaf.

Garlic paste. Delicious with pretty much anything.

Intrepid eaters from Couchsurfing Barranquilla.

Central Asian Family Entertainment

By Rob Packer

One of the perils of travelling alone in Central Asia lies in the way that restaurants, in the Western understanding, aren’t as common as you might think. Sure, there are chaikhanas (teahouses) or cafes, but when these are hard-to-find or just plain dodgy, and when you don’t have a home to cook in, you’ll probably end up in a “restaurant”.

Most restaurants I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are far from places for a quiet meal; they’re more of a strange hybrid of restaurant (they serve food), club (there’s plenty of dancing and sometimes light shows) and wedding party (the first people dancing are young children and some uncle you hardly ever see). And if it looks like a restaurant at first, wait a bit – the process seems to start about 7pm – you’ll see the tables empty and the dance floor fill. In Kyrgyzstan, the energy shown on the dance floor is normally proportional to the amount of vodka drunk; in more pious Uzbekistan, I wasn’t sure whether the dancing I saw in my first restaurant trip was fuelled by surreptitious alcohol, endless pots of tea or something else.

Food in Central Asia: the hard way to a bowl of lagman (Central Asian noodles).

Although the basic concept is similar between the two countries, from what I’ve seen, the music is different. In Kyrgyzstan, something called zhivaya muzyka is preferred, but you shouldn’t be taken in by a literal translation of the Russian term as live music because this is no live band. In my view, it’s probably best described as “professional karaoke” with a selection of Russian, Soviet and Kyrgyz classics with the odd international song in English thrown into the mix. In Uzbekistan, people seem to prefer traditional Uzbek romantic music with some recent American hits. In both countries the energy levels are quite similar.

Safer is to eat at home like this plov in Bukhara.

What I found strangest about this whole culture of dance restaurants is the age spectrum of patrons and dancers. It really is a full range: I’ve seen a women-only group of twenty aged between 15 and 60 dancing at one in Kyrgyzstan, and the one I visited in Samarkand looked like a wedding party except people didn’t necessarily know each other. This makes for some strange viewing, such as watching a group of ten middle aged women dancing to what seems to be Central Asia’s song of the year, Pitbull’s I Know You Want Me.

Whatever the music, whether it’s zhivaya muzyka, traditional Uzbek chanson or Russian, Romanian or American chart music, you can be sure that right now, somewhere in Central Asia, someone your grandparents’ age is tearing up the dance floor.

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