Good Eats

My whole life I have been surrounded by creative cooks. From my mom fixing up schnitzel and spaghetti carbonara in the kitchen to my boyfriend, Daniel, mixing up a new pastry or challenging dish, I am never without a new treat to try. In Oman I am surrounded by new foods, but there is a simplicity in the palate that I’m not used to—unless I’m eating at an Indian restaurant where they bring on the spice. The important element of meals is not necessarily what is on the plate, but who you are sharing the plate with. There are some treats that I grab on my way to meeting someone, and other meals that center on sharing them with your neighbors or family. However, every Omani dish I have had was in a hospitable, friendly setting.

Dinner together outside

In a typical Omani home, a specific room called a majilis is designated simply for hosting. I have been to a few different majilis and each one is different. Otherwise, we would share a meal in the hadeeka (garden). Men and women typically eat separately and typically in a home if possible there will be a men’s and a women’s majilis. This took some getting used to, and I will admit to not enjoying every flavor of every food, but the time to sit and have conversation is where I learned most about Omani culture and Islamic tradition.

Some of these items are not unique to Oman, but either brought from Indian cuisine or a general favorite across the Arab world. I’ll do my best to dish out which is what. I’ve had these prepared in many ways and every time they have tasted different. I cannot hope to replicate the dishes, but I’ve enjoyed sampling. Let’s start with dessert….

Dessert

Halwa is the most traditional dish for a sweet bite and is uniquely Omani. It’s a unique combination of tapioca, spices such as saffron, ghee, cardamom and nutmeg as well as rose water, and assorted nuts. The consistency is similar to sticky jello. Sometimes fruit or date paste is added. The best halwa I had was fresh at the Muscat festival. The picture is warmed and wrapped around and around a hot bowl like taffy. Fresh is the best when it comes to halwa, but I have been offered a free bite from every tourist spot and bakery.

Drinks

            Qahwah (coffee), Chai Karak (tea), and juice are all offered in every “coffee shop” around Oman. Each is a social drink and consumed several times daily in small paper cups. It’s hard to imagine coffee when it’s not in a big mug, however the cardamom coffee that is unique to the region is hard to take in big quantities. So, little porcelain cups in homes are used to share coffee with guests. Traditionally, guests shouldn’t drink more than three cups when visiting. I will miss the karak tea most because it is sweet and the first drink Shah brought me when we met. No two cups of karak taste the same. When my language partner made me some in Ibri, I almost didn’t recognize the combination of spices she used versus the coffee shop on the Mutrah corniche. But, one thing is guaranteed: the tea will be sweet.

Snacks

My absolute favorite snack in Oman is samosas. Samosas are most famous as a side to your Indian restaurant’s main course. However, they are found all over the Arabian Peninsula as well. Samosas can be stuffed with anything from vegetables to chicken. My favorite were in Ibri right across from my language school. These were stuffed with potatoes, onions, cilantro and a combination of spices. It took everything I had in me not to get a couple every day. By the time I left, the men in the shop knew me and always asked “samosa?” when I walked in. In Muscat, we get plenty of smaller, crispy samosas when we visit Shah. These are made of a lighter dough and are always fresh when we get them from the coffee shop on the corniche.

Tabouleh is a salad with a parsley and garlic base, cucumbers, tomatoes and lemon. I was familiar with this snack from home, but the garlic is much heavier here in Oman. Occasionally I feel I am not getting enough grain from my normal diet so I’ll go grab tabbouleh to boost my iron. I just might brush my teeth four times that day!

Litchi, Bananas and coconut are my fruits to throw in my bag for a snack. Coconuts are grown more in the southern city of Salalah. For part of my spring break I spent a few days in the sun and my taxi driver dropped me off on the side of the road to have a vendor chop off the top of a fresh coconut for a drink, and hand me a banana. Litchi is a fruit I never have back home. I feel as if I’m eating a rose, and I love litchi juice as well!

Meat, Meat, Meat

For lunch with guests, fresh goat and rice are typically the first pick. After sharing qahwah  the main meal will come out. On one occasion on a visit to a farm, our group was met with a huge platter of rice and meat. Half the goat went to the women, and the other to the men. We all stayed around the platter and pulled off the meat with our hands and some of the women helped us scoop with our hands. Out of this struggle came laughter and joking and fun memories. I also had a bit of the brain…how’s that for a cultural experience?

Among with goat meat, camel kabobs and chicken are common to find in town. In Salalah we tried some camel from a shop off the road. During the week in Ibri, camel kabobs hit the spot when we wanted some added protein. A man just down the road would grill up the kabobs next to his car and smother them in a spicy sauce before smiling and handing us our lunch.

Shwarma is a great combination of chicken, sauces and maybe some veggies wrapped in pita. It’s great for a lunch or late-night snack and has definitely become a part of my weekly diet in Muscat along with a large watermelon or lemon mint juice.

Honorable Mention

One of the best places for dinner in Mutrah we refer to as “Plate o’ meat”. The mixed grill of lamb, beef and chicken along with hummus, pita and a side of fatoush (basic green salad with fried pita chips on top) is perfect for a big meal. This is a typical middle eastern mix of dishes along with mint tea to finish.

…and don’t forget the Dates

            Of course, I have to finish with the most popular part of the Omani diet: dates. I’ve mentioned them before and I’ll mention them again because every Omani home has a stash. When visiting Nizwa, I saw more dates than I will probably ever see again in many, many varieties. The date trade has been present in Oman for centuries and most are still picked off the palm trees individually. On one visit to a farm, try the process of wiggling up the trunk of a palm tree as a date farmer would. I finished with nothing but several scratches to show for it.

 

No Meat, No Problem

I have been a vegetarian for most of my life. I’m not sure why—no one is—but it always seemed to suit me. In the last decade or so, as the diet has become more popular at home, being a vegetarian has become incredibly easy. Still, there are so many unnecessary stereotypes about vegetarians in the States (I’m sure some folk are even annoyed that I am even talking about this in the first place).  At best, I’ve been called weird, optimistic, and naïve.  At worst, I’ve been called ridiculous, stupid, and over-emotional. Why? Because Americans mostly view vegetarianism and veganism as fad diets and, so, there isn’t a whole lot of respect for plant-based eating. In India, however, things are completely different.

Because of India’s cultural roots in Hinduism, Jainism, and other religions with dietary restrictions, vegetarianism is a completely normal diet in the country. In fact, if you don’t mention otherwise, most people will assume you don’t eat meat. I knew this coming in and, of course, it played a huge role in my decision to come to India. Still, until I got here, I didn’t realize just how normal it was to be meat-free. Imagine, a Chili’s American Bar and Grill with two menu pages of vegetarian entrees. I almost didn’t believe it when I saw it.

This is a complete shift from what I am used to back home. Though it isn’t hard to be meat-free in the States anymore, I always feel like I need to double-check if I can eat something. Meat gets snuck into everything (I am looking RIGHT at you Bacon Bits) and restaurants rarely serve more than one vegetarian option. I understand why America is this way; there are so many factors that have lead to the meat-and-potatoes life. But India doesn’t have that history. In so many ways, it is clear that their culture was never built around eating meat.

For instance, instead of noting whether a food is vegetarian, most Indian menus will note if a food is NOT vegetarian. It’s a subtle difference, but it specifically marks vegetarianism as the rule—not the exception. Also, there is a lot less meat served in general. My dining hall only serves one meat dish per meal, if even. For the first time in my life I don’t feel the need to be on the defensive about my diet. In this way, I am actually more comfortable in India than I am in America. I never expected that.

Again, I know a whole post about vegetarianism is not for everyone. It just isn’t the “American way”. But there hasn’t been anything more striking to me about my host culture that how easy it has been for me to eat. There is something about sharing a meal that brings people together and being able to participate in meals fully has been such an affirming thing for me. I can already tell the reverse culture shock is going to be rough. Until then though, I’ll be enjoying some of the best food I’ve ever had.

Fresh samosas at tea time.
Chaat–a popular Indian street food
A typical lunch at Tagore International House dining hall.

Mi Familia Anfitriona (Host Family)

When looking at the various options for study abroad, I always knew I wanted to do a homestay.  However, I did not realize how pivotal this decision would be until actually being 10,000 miles from my own home and family!  Here’s a little look into my homestay in Santiago, Chile.

Mi mamá lives in an apartment in Santiago with her 30-year-old daughter.  In Chile, it is very common for young adults to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s!  Even universities do not have dorms or on-campus housing, so the majority of students commute to university while still living under their parents’ roofs.

The IES staff picked me up from the airport and took me directly to my host home to meet mi mamá. Within minutes of walking into the door, mi mamá insisted on taking a selfie to send to her daughter!

Host parents not only cook your meals (mi mamá happens to be an incredible cook… sorry, Phelps Dining) and do your laundry, but they are your support system and a dependable resource while abroad.  This is only my fourth night in my host home, but I can always count on a warm greeting with “un beso” on the cheek when I enter the door, a heating pad full of hot water to warm my feet at night during the cold Chilean winters, an invitation to watch a soap opera in our pajamas, and good conversation over a cup of tea or maté.

The seasons are opposite here in Chile as they are United States. Although Chilean winters are significantly milder than Michigan winters, energy is very expensive, so the majority of homes do not have central heating. Luckily, mi mamá makes my bed with 7 layers of sheets to keep me nice and cozy at night.

 

Host families are great at accommodating for your dietary preferences, but they will always introduce you to the local cuisine, too! Here is my first dinner: cazuela (a traditional Chilean stew with beef, potatoes, and other veggies), leche de almendras y ensalada. Muuuuuy rico.

As thankful as I am for the way mi mamá has welcomed me in and provided for me already, I am more thankful for the immense grace and patience she gives me!  She stays attentive in conversation as I wrack my brain for the English to Spanish translation, explains over and over how to get from our apartment to the bus stop, and is quick to forgive when I forget to unplug the space heater (again).

Here’s the kitchen where all the magic of Chilean cuisine happens! It’s a bit tight and surely nothing extravagant, but I love the coziness of our apartment!

It certainly is a transition to go from living in dorms and with friends to entering into a family’s home, but it is the only way to fully experience the warmth of South American culture!

This is not to say that I am not missing my own mom back home, but what a gift it is to have a mamá here, too!

Things to do at La Mitad del Mundo

Just by looking at the name “Ecuador” you can guess its location on a map, correct? Ecuador straddles the equatorial line, so one of its attractions is visiting the “Middle of the World” or la Mitad del Mundo. So, mis amigos, I’ve created a list of things you can do if you visit the equator in Ecuador!

Cuy (although this photograph was taken in Baños, Ecuador and not la MDM).
Cuy (although this photograph was taken in Baños, Ecuador and not la MDM).
  1. Try some cuy. There are many locations in and around la MDM where cuy is sold. If you’re wondering, “What is cuy?” let me tell you that it is a delicious meat eaten in Ecuador that tastes like chicken… except it’s guinea pig. You have to try it at least once. I’ll assure you that I was skeptical at first because I know a lot of people own a pet guinea pig. But just so you know, one of my friends here has a pet guinea pig back in the states, but he still tried cuy and loved it! Recommendation: Eat cuy at Restaurante Pueblita located outside of la MDM in a town called Pomasqui. I’ve heard that this is the best cuy place.
  2. Visit the Museo Intiñan. This museum will take you through a tour of the animals in the Ecuadorian rainforest, the process of making a shrinking head, the living spaces of a group of indigenous peoples of the rainforest, and many other surprises. You’ll be able to take a picture at the equator standing on both hemispheres! Also, if you ask, you could get the chocolate tour which lets you see the chocolate-making process and you can sample some chocolate bits.

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  3. Balance an egg on a the head of a nail. This is also done at Intiñan as part of the tour. But the cool part is that if you actually get it to balance, you get a little diploma that states your accomplishment. It took me only two tries to balance the egg and feel like an equatorial champion.

    "Successfully Balanced an Egg" ft. my friend's thumb.
    “Successfully Balanced an Egg” ft. my friend’s thumb.
  4. See the UNASUR building. This building is only a few years old and was used earlier this year to hold the UNASUR conference. UNASUR is the Union of South American Nations, and their event hosted the presidents of the South American countries as well as some of the Central American presidents. Outside of the building are the flags of all of the South American nations.
  5. Go see the monument at the Middle of the World. I did not have time to see this monument because the area was closing (I took too long at the Intiñan Museum). Inside of the closed area is another museum full of history of Ecuador, more flags, and the giant monument where you can take a picture.
  6. See the “actual” Mitad del MundoThe tourist areas are the ones I’ve mentioned before, but the real MDM (where GPS devices have confirmed is the actual longitude and latitude zero) is on top of a mountain a few kilometers away from the monument and UNASUR building. There is a pole at the top of the mountain that marks the spot for the real MDM. Ask any local and they will be happy to point you to the area.

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  7. Visit the largest self-sustained volcano valley village. There are taxi rides that will take you to Pululahua to see inside of the volcano. It’s villagers only travel outside to buy some commodities not grown or found within the volcano. However, the villagers grow their own food down there since the land is surprisingly fertile and they receive a ton of humidity from the clouds. My only advice would be to visit this site earlier in the morning when there are no clouds or fog so that you’ll be able to see inside the volcano crater. Another tip: Wear warm clothing since it’ll be colder there.

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That’s it for the list, mis amigos. But be sure to keep following my blogs to find out more about studying abroad in general and specifically in Ecuador! ¡Hasta luego, amigos!

Touchdown!

Touchdown! As in… on an airplane in Cuzco! The past few weeks have been filled with travel, climbing hills, picking some fruit here and there, and meeting lots of new people. A week and a half ago my study abroad program officially started in Lima, Peru, and for the past several days I have been taking coursework in Cuzco over research methods, Spanish, Quechua, and Peruvian/Spanish/indigenous history. Then today I left from Cuzco for a brief weekend visit to rural areas and certain archeological sites, including Ollanta and the Valle Sagrado.

But just a moment! Before I dive headfirst into my blogging career, I thought I would break the ice with a little food. Because after all, who doesn’t like food?

When I was in Chile, I found this gem...
When I was in Chile, I found this gem…

To the right, therefore, you can see our esteemed and exotic lemon pepper, whose flavor is slightly more tart than most. The locals consumed it with much frequency—albeit in its less slender variety—and primarily because we had a lot of them. Why is this important? First, because I hoped a chuckle would emerge from you, and second, because I spent three weeks of my month’s stay in Chile working on a lemon farm, none other! Many of the lemons—or limones, as we called them in Chilean Spanish—came in unique shapes and sizes, from the tamaño of a golf-ball to what could be mistaken for a small melon with fingers. It was a blast picking them, to say the least.

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Beyond lemonade at just about every meal, these limones came in handy when preparing the national beverage, called Pisco Sour. A mix of lemon, eggwhite, sugar, and liquor, the drink also sparks a subtle rivalry, so I learned, as neighboring Peru claims it equally as its own!

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Food on the lemon farm. And yes: there were definitely puppies.

As to a quick summary, my three-week’s stay in Chile was ironically filled with lots of Europeans, Australians, and Americans, who cooked their own usually veggie dishes. I would contrast that to my experience so far in Peru where there are far fewer veggie options, and a lot more of the animal is consumed, moreover, from heart to stomach to feet.

Ceviche mixto, complete with mystery fish, and what we reasoned was squid, octopus, and a mollusk.
Ceviche mixto, complete with mystery fish and what we reasoned was squid, octopus, and a mollusk of sorts.

Ceviche too, raw fish soaked (and in this way “cooked” without heat) in a citrus mixture, is a Peruvian favorite. On my first try, I mistakenly ordered the “ceviche mixto”, which is to say that I had the pleasure of taking a stab (yes, pun intended) at octopus, squid, and a certain mollusk for the first time as well, raw in a ceviche bowl. Yum yum!

More food on the farm
Another day on the farm…

Pictures of what I eat will become a habit of mine to place in each blog going forward. Some will be more exotic than others, some may be main courses and others drinks or desserts, but regardless, my hope is to give a more personal feel to my stories; and hey, if you want to, these could always become ideas for your own kitchen! 😉

All that said, here I am, and here begins a great semester of study! Before I call it quits, wherever in the world I may be, I Hope you know the Flying Dutchmen are still first and foremost in my heart! Or to say the least, an eerily similar anchor can be found just off San Cristobal Hill in Santiago, and I saw it as the perfect opportunity:

The anchor makes its appearance on the other side of the world—captured just after climbing San Cristobal Hill in Santiago.
The anchor makes its appearance on the other side of the world!

On that note, stay tuned; much more to come!

Things to do in and around Quito

¿Cómo están, mis amigos? Are you curious about what to do in Quito? I had no idea that there were so many possiblities for exploration and entertainment in Quito (or on the outskirts of the city). For all of those adventurers out there interested in delving into Ecuador’s beautiful capital city, here is a list of 10 things you can do:

  1. Take the TelefériQo up Pichincha and then go hiking. To do this, you’ll need: a waterproof jacket, layers, good hiking boots, sunscreen, snacks, and plenty of water. Also suggested: sunglasses, gloves, friendly companions, strong lungs, and an early morning visit (to avoid the clouds). Cost to ride the TelefériQo is $7.50 per person (tourist price).

    At the peak of Rucu Pichincha. Photo credit: Aimee Hoffman.
    At the peak of Rucu Pichincha. Photo credit: Aimee Hoffman.
  2. Visit El Centro Histórico. This is basically the old Quito, so it’s full of Spanish architecture, big churches, museums, parks, restaurants, and so much more! This is definitely a good place to visit if you like to roam around old places. Still, most of this part of town has been updated, so you’ll see a lot of modern things mixed in with the old. You can also visit El Panecillo, a hill with a giant statue of La Virgen del Panecillo.

    The Virgen del Panecillo seen from the Historic Center of Quito.
    Walking through El Centro Histórico and seeing La Virgen del Panecillo.
  3. Go to a museum. To really learn about the history of Quito or Ecuador, you must visit a museum to experience the past. Two of my favorite museums in Quito (also located in El Centro Histórico) are Museo de la Ciudad and Museo El Alabado. The first has detailed exhibits of the effects of the Spanish Conquista and the second is full of Pre-Incan and Post-Incan art. Plus, they are only a few blocks away from each other!

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    Ceramic artwork displaying the clothing of a shaman found at Museo El Alabado.
  4. Eat good food. It’s Ecuador, so the food here is delicious anyway. But since this is Quito, the capital, there are a variety of tasty restaurants from all over. If you want to try some Cuban, Spanish, Chinese, Mexican, or any other country’s food, you’ll likely find a restaurant for it in Quito. The restaurants are located all throughout the city. There is also street food (not recommended for travelers) sold all over Quito. Plus, if you’re craving good ol’ American food, there are tons of American chains here including Subway, Domino’s, Burger King, McDonald’s, and KFC (although their menus have some Ecuadorian twists to them!).
  5. Watch a play. There are always shows at La Casa de la Cultura and El Patio de las Comedias. I’m not much of a theater-geek, but I did enjoy watching a play with one of my friends at El Patio de las Comedias. It turned out to be a very popular show since it was a comedy about Cupid’s love life! My only recommendation is to buy a ticket in advance (online) or show up early to buy one (I almost didn’t get a seat).
  6. Visit a park. There are tons of parks to visit in Quito. So far I’ve only visited one, Parque La Carolina, since it’s large and close to my school. At La Carolina, there are lots of trees, places to play different sports, a skate park, and a playground. There are also free Zumba classes at La Carolina on Sunday mornings. Safety tip: never visit parks alone or after it gets dark.

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    The botanical gardens in Quito are also found in La Carolina!
  7. Take a peek inside the churches. There are many churches in Quito since the city has a strong Catholic background. But I think the most beautiful churches are located in El Centro Histórico. Two churches that are a must-see are the Basílica del Voto Nacional which has so much beauty inside and out (and it’s HUGE), and the other is La Compañia de Jesús which is adorned with gold inside.

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    The entire church was impossible for me to capture with my camera! This is La Basílica.
  8. Go to a fútbol game. This is still on my to-do list. A really popular place to watch professional soccer games is at El Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa located in the northern part of Quito. When I get the chance to attend a game, I’ll, of course, have to buy an Ecuadorian t-shirt to support my host country’s team!
  9. Attend a concert. It doesn’t have to be a big concert; Quito has tons of mini-concerts every week. Some places have jazz, rock, and Latin music. Most of the mini-concerts are found within local pubs or breweries. But, Quito also has big concerts! On March 3rd, I’ll be attending an Enrique Iglesias concert at El Coliseo General Rumiñahui! I’m so excited (I’ll mention it in a future blog, I’m sure)!
  10. Learn to dance. Or if you already know how to dance, then just find an awesome discoteca to go dancing. Like I mentioned before, there are free Zumba classes in the park. There are also a few places I’ve seen where they teach belly dancing! I haven’t personally tried those classes, but what I have done is learn to dance from a native. To do this, go to any club that plays Latin music (my favorite), start dancing with friends, and, sure enough, a native will want to dance with you!

So there’s a short list of a variety of activities to partake in when you visit Quito, and I hope you do! Till my next blog, ¡ciao, amigos!

Fish Fry

On Wednesday, a friend and I went to a fogata, which is Spanish for “bonfire.” The fishermen in Valparaiso put it on once or twice a year. It involves lots of food, a giant fire, and good music. My family told me about it and I wanted to go, so I dragged a friend along.

Each fisherman has his own little stand where they fry fish right there in front of you. You can pay 2.000 pesos (roughly $4) and it gets you a fried fish, a dinner role, and a glass of wine. The fish was fried whole, skin and bones and everything—just missing its head. The fish was SO GOOD! I cannot even explain the joys of fresh fried fish, super hot and crispy, and a nice glass of cool wine to wash it down.IMG_0351

The bonfire was probably my favorite part, and naturally I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t take pictures of it. There was a wood pile that I am pretty sure was taller than me, and about five or six people standing together. They poured some lighter fluid on it and had a little countdown, and when the fire hit the lighter fluid, there was a little explosion! I was not the only to let out a scream of surprise. But then there was this amazing fire to accompany the night.

I was pretty surprised at the number of people there. Thinking about it, I really should not be, because obviously it is a well-known event that happens here, and fishing is an important part of life in Valparaiso. My host parents knew about it, and when I told my host sister where I was going, she was upset that she had forgotten it was that night. So clearly it is a thing people look forward to. And it was packed! We finally left because there were just so many people and my friend and I are both a little uncomfortable in big crowds. But overall, a really great experience—something I could never experience at home! IMG_0350