Food for thought part ten: ‘el ultimo’ – Cuba

A feast for two!

If you eat at your casa particular (which you really should for the best quality food and the feel-good-factor of knowing the family that your money is going to) you’ll definitely leave Cuba a few pounds heavier than when you entered. Meals provided by the casa owners have been consistently fantastic and huge! For a taste of Cuba read on…

Fantastic fruits
Although perhaps slightly less varied that the tropical fruits in Colombia, the flavours in Cuba are just incredible, with the sweetest pineapples and tangiest mangoes I’ve ever tasted. And with a platter of fruit at every breakfast and dinner you can’t help but get your ‘five-a-day’!

Fruit salad, a key part of every meal

Langosta (lobster)
For some reason lobster appears to be both cheap and abundant in Cuba (for tourists at least). I’ve eaten more lobster in the past two weeks than I have in my entire life! Cooked with a tomato sauce and served alongside green beans, avacado, cucumber, manioc, rice and a black bean stew, it made one of the best banquet-style dinners provided by the friendly casa owners.

A whole lobster

Lobster in pieces

Black bean stew
Not all that dissimilar to the feijao in Brazil, this slightly salty black bean stew is the perfect side dish, providing more variety and flavour to accompany the staple South American meat-and-rice main course.

Black bean stew

Fried plantain/bananas
Another common side dish found in Cuba is fried plantain or bananas, not being a fan of bananas I leave this treat (as I have at every meal) to Simon…. “I do like bananas, but being compelled to politely eat these oily yellow discs at every meal, I’m beginning to see Laura’s point of view! Sweet, filling and delicious, yes; a huge plate every day alongside an already massive meal? I think I’ve had my quota for the next few years!”

Pizza, and ham sandwiches
These are two classic street snacks found throughout Cuba, perfect for a light (well compared to the huge dinners) lunch. Bought for 10-20 moneda nacional pesos (25-50p) ham and cheese pizzas, cooked in ovens fashioned from old oil drums, are served on a disc of paper and eaten folded in half. Ham sandwiches can also be bought on every street corner and are nearly always toasted and served hand-scorchingly hot.

Ice cream
We delighted in spending our days in Viñales sampling the different ice-cream flavours peddled by the town’s various ice-cream vendors. The Mr Whippy-style dispensers give nothing away, it’s not until your first lick you discover you’ve been sold a delicious pineapple or some other delightful yet unexpected flavoured ice cream, and for only 2.5p!

Tasty ice cream

Rum (Ron)
With the sun shining and live Cuban music playing you can’t resist the temptation of sitting back for the afternoon with a nice refreshing mojito or cuba libre. These rum based cocktails are impossible to avoid in Cuba, and why would you want to?

Mojitos, the perfect refreshment

Thank you to all the lovely casa ladies for the fabulous feasts and for making Cuban food some of the best we’ve had in South America! ¡Buen provecho!


Food for thought part nine – Colombia

Typical Colombian plate

If there’s one thing that Colombians love it’s cheese, they’ll add it to pretty much anything from fruit salad to hot chocolate. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the ubiquitous cheese comes in only one fairly flavourless form. Here are some of the Colombian specialities that we sampled (sometimes minus the cheese):

Buñuelos are little balls of a fluffy cake-like texture with a vaguely (surprise surprise) cheesy flavour and crunchy exterior courtesy of their being deep-fried. Simon thought they reminded him of the sponge balls from PE at school, fried. Tasty!

A buñuelo

A common street snack is a sandwich comprised of two tea-plate sized wafers with three fillings from a choice of dulce de leche, jam, chopped nuts, hundreds and thousands, mascarpone and… You guessed it, grated cheese.

Oblea filled with jam and, well, cheese

Another common street snack, arepas are grilled patties made primarily from white corn which unless stuffed with cheese (or if you’re feeling adventurous perhaps even some other filling) can be seriously lacking in flavour.

Look away Laura – it’s an Arepa

Tamales make a great lunch. When you open up the steamed, banana leaf-wrapped parcel you discover a tasty yellow corn-based paste (with a flavour reminiscent of stuffing) surrounding a portion of equally delicious meat, a surprisingly filling dish.

A tamale from the outside

A tamale. Tastes a lot better than it looks!

Tropical fruits
Colombia has a wealth of tropical fruits. We decided the best way to sample the unknown delights was to walk into the supermarket and buy one of everything we’d never heard of or that particularly took our fancy. Among the fruits we enjoyed were grenadilla (kind of a cross between a passionfruit and a pomegranate), passionfruit (these are much bigger and sharper tasting than those found in supermarkets back home), uchuvas (known as Cape Gooseberries back home, here in Colombia the small yellow fruit is packed with much more punch), papayuela (similar to passionfruit in texture but with a subtler, more pineapple-like flavour), and finally my favourite, lulo. Lulos are orange on the outside, green on the inside ad have an incredibly sharp kiwi-crossed-with-lime flavour, absolutely delicious! I’m just sad that we only discovered this incredible fruit towards the end of our time in Colombia.

Grenadilla, or frogspawn?


Laura’s favourite, the lulo

Hot chocolate with cheese
You may be picturing stirring some mascarpone into your hot chocolate to give a slightly strange but not unpleasant tang to the drink. But no, you are expected to break off bits of rubbery cheese, drop them into your hot chocolate allowing them to soften a little with the heat (the cheese doesn’t actually melt) before spooning the sweetened chunks into your mouth. It’s not particularly unpleasant, just not something I feel the need to try again… I think I’ll stick to marshmallows and cream.

What a combination!

Cerveza Michelada
Beer with lime in the glass and salt around the rim, margarita style. Very refreshing if a little odd – great for the hot climate.

Cerveza Michelada

This is the most popular spirit in Colombia, with an initial aniseed taste similar to sambuca but an aftertaste of vodka. Most strangely, it also comes in packed lunch sized cartons.

Aguardiente ready to drink

Colombia certainly supplied a refreshing variety of new dishes to our South American experience and, with the fantastic fruits on offer, some flavours that I fear I will spend a long time searching to sample again…


Food for thought part eight – Bolivia and Peru

Food at a Peruvian market

Bolivia isn’t exactly a culinary paradise, that’s not to say the food is bad, just a little bland. Peru on the other hand definitely wins the prize for flavour in South America, thank you Peru for finally bringing spice back to the table! Here are some of the regional specialities from this part of this trip…

Menu del día (Bolivia and Peru)
The menu del día is the cheap way to eat in Bolivia or Peru, it is typically a two or three course meal comprised of a soup starter (often a little watery), a main of some kind of flavourless meat served with boiled potatoes and rice or pasta (if you’re lucky this might be accompanied by a sauce, if not you can liven it up with the ever present salsa picante) and a desert of tinned fruit salad or jelly. All of this is usually washed down with an unidentifiable ‘juice’, essentially sugary water. It’s a pretty no frills affair but cheap and filling.

Chicken, I think, red sauce, and pasta

Salchipapa (Bolivia and Peru)
Salchipapa is the kind of dish you might concoct with what’s left in your cupboard, chips mixed with chopped frankfurters, sliced onions and peppers smothered in a tomato sauce.

Quinoa soup (Bolivia)
Quinoa is a small round grain sometimes used as an accompaniment similar to rice. It’s a nice way to bulk up the often thin vegetable soups served in Bolivia.

Quinola soup

Trucha (Bolivia and Peru)
I believe that trucha (trout) fresh from lake Titicaca is one of the nicest Bolivian dishes we encountered. It can be found cooked in all manner of ways, but my favourite was probably trucha grilled in a lemon sauce.

Chifa (Bolivia and Peru)
Chifas are Chinese restaurants of varying quality found throughout Bolivia and Peru (although probably more prominently in Peru). A refreshing alternative to the ubiquitous meat and rice (although you can of course find dishes containing both of these constituents, just with more flavour than usual!).

Fresh fruit salad from the market in Sucre, Bolivia

Ceviche (Peru)
The best dish I have tasted in months! I have to admit I was skeptical, I’m not a fan of sushi and to be honest the idea of eating raw fish doesn’t really appeal to me. Ceviche has definitely changed that! Ceviche is raw fish marinated in a chilli and lime sauce topped with raw onions and served with a side of sweet potato and giant sweetcorn (seriously -the sweetcorn in Peru is huge!), a dish packed with tongue-tingling flavour, definitely one not to be missed.

A dish of the gods

Rocoto relleno (Peru)
Another fine example of tasty Peruvian food, the spicy red peppers are stuffed with minced beef, onions, diced boiled egg and plenty of seasoning.

Spicy and stuffed, perfect

Cuy (Peru)
If you’ve ever had a pet Guinea Pig you may want to stop reading now. Yes cuy is roasted or fried Guinea Pig. Whilst the crunchy skin is nicely flavoured with herbs and spices, as might be expected there’s not a lot of actual meat to be had on this Peruvian delicacy!

Guinea Pigs are tasty food here…

Restaurant-style cuy

Pisco sour (Peru)
Peru’s most famous cocktail made from Pisco (grape brandy), lime juice, bitters, sugar and egg whites is a real treat and impossible to avoid!

Enjoying a pisco sour… and yet more ceviche!

With only four weeks left until we re-enter the world of cheddar cheese, marmite and salt and vinegar crisps (seriously, these are the things I miss!) I wonder what Colombia and Cuba have in store…


Food for thought part seven – Brazil and Argentina

Laura attempting to fit in a fridge!

After all of the flavour and spice of Asia the food in South America so far has definitely been a little underwhelming. This, compounded by the fact that Brazil and Argentina are so much more expensive than Asia, meant that we actually cooked for ourselves a fair bit. However, here’s a taste of some of the more noteworthy dishes we experienced in these two countries:

Por quilo (Brazil)
The best way to eat out in Brazil is at one of the buffet style “per kilo” restaurants where you can pile up your plate with a variety of food and pay for what you eat by weight (of the plate not the person). An oddity that we encountered at many of these restaurants was the salad dressing, having doused your lettuce in what you believed to be balsamic vinegar it is a bit of a surprise to taste the salty essence of soy sauce. In a moment of schadenfreude we enjoyed watching other tourists make the same mistake!

Per Kilo Self Service

Feijao (Brazil)
I wasn’t a huge fan of this dish as it seemed pretty flavourless to me, nevertheless feijao, stewed black beans, seems to be a Brazilian staple.

Churrascaria (Brazil)
Churrascarias serve up a range of barbecued meats cut straight off the skewer onto your plate. Somehow we managed to pass our time in Brazil without visiting a dedicated churrascaria restaurant (possibly because of the price), but we were able to sample some at the per kilo restaurants, our first foray into the food that South America is famous for – meat.

Acai (Brazil)
A slushy frozen purple delight, perfect after a day of trekking in Brazil’s heat. Acai is a blend of ice, acai berries, and if you’re not paying attention bananas (you can usually opt out of this), best enjoyed with a sprinkling of granola.


Batida (Brazil)
We discovered these incredibly sweet cocktails being sold by a street vendor in the midst of Salvador’s chaotic carnival. Batidas consist of cachaça, your choice of tropical fruit, condensed milk and some very pink fruit syrup blended together with ice.

Cocktail anyone?

Brazil’s most famous cocktail made from cachaça, lime juice (although other fruit variants can be found), sugar and ice, needs a good stir and strong alcohol tolerance. In their country of origin these cocktails are mixed with generous measures of cachaça that will definitely leave you feeling worse for wear the following day.

Steak (Argentina)
If you weren’t a fan of steak before entering the country you definitely will be by the time you leave! The thick, juicy Argentinian steaks come in a variety of cuts the best of which is bife de chorizo. Sometimes a choice of sauces are available but often the steak is served up in its own tasty juices. Sides of potatoes and vegetables are ordered separately and you definitely leave feeling that you’ve eaten enough meat for a week!

Juicy steak

Empanadas (Argentina)
Empanadas make the perfect afternoon snack when you’re waiting until the typical Argentine dinner time of 10-12 pm! These little filled pastries are probably most akin to the British Cornish pasty but come with a range of fillings the most popular of which are probably carne (minced beef, onion, pepper and sometimes a bolognese style sauce), pollo (chicken with onion, herbs and spices), and cheese and ham (a very rubbery and fairly tasteless cheese – the only kind available in Argentina with the exception of Parmesan)

Dulce de Leche (Argentina)
You can’t spend very long in Argentina without encountering dulce de leche. This sweet caramely goo is made from condensed milk and seems to be used ubiquitously in any kind of sweet or dessert. You can easily order an apple cake in the hopes of avoiding the sickly sweet emulsion, only to find a surprise layer of dulce de leche, because really what desert would be complete without it? It may seem like a delight at first but after seven weeks you’ll do almost anything to avoid it!


A side trip to Santiago

Crossing the border

Whilst Karoline and Simon made their way up to Cordoba via San Juan and the Valle de la Luna I took a slight detour into Chile to receive my new second-hand iPhone (thank you Dad!) and have a little adventure on my own.

The 7 hour bus ride from Mendoza to Santiago is absolutely breathtaking, passing straight through the Andes with views of Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas, along the way.

Standing on top of Santa Lucia hill, the founding site of Santiago, you can experience the strange sensation of the scorching afternoon sun whilst looking out at the backdrop of snowcapped mountains surrounding the city.

The first night in Chile I was woken up by what I at first thought was a lot of fidgeting by the girl in the lower bunk, only to realise as the shaking intensified that I was in fact experiencing an earthquake. Of course by the time we’d all fully woken up and appreciated what was going on it was over, nevertheless a surreal and slightly scary sensation to wake up to!

The hostel I stayed at, Castillo Surfista, was a fantastic little place, a house converted into a hostel that really felt like home. Perhaps one of its best features is Duke the skateboarding dog (he can even steer)!

Having taken in the usual major sites in a city: the government buildings, cathedral, main square and markets, the walking tour I had joined with some friends from my hostel ended in bar named La Piojera (the fleapit). A fantastically grungy local bar selling the most lethal cocktails, about a pint in volume consisting of cheap wine, fernet (a potent and bitter herby liquor) and pineapple ice cream. They call it “terremoto” or “earthquake” because drinking it supposedly causes the ground beneath your feet to begin to move – you definitely need the pile of greasy chips topped with egg and strips of steak to soak it up!

One Chilean custom that I had not heard of until our guide introduced us to it is “café con piernas”, i.e. “coffee with legs”. Apparently coffee shops didn’t really take off in Chile until the beverages were served by women in short skirts (or less). We certainly weren’t expecting to be kissed on the cheek by a girl in stilettos and skimpy underwear whilst ordering our coffee! I’m not sure who was more uncomfortable, me and Hannah (the only females in the place who were fully clothed) or the male city workers taking their afternoon break who had become part of a tourist attraction (I’m pretty sure it was us).

Anyway, after a fun few days in sunny Santiago, meeting some old friends (in travelling terms i.e. someone you’ve met once before) and making some new ones, I’m on the road again, back to Argentina.