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!


Food for thought part six – Thailand and Malaysia

Apologies for taking so long to get this post out, I didn’t quite finish it on our flight home and then my whistle stop tour of the UK got in the way!

Although we’ve raced through these two countries in little under three weeks we’ve still taken our time to sample their culinary delights, our last taste of South East Asia. Among the dishes that our tastebuds have been acquainted with in this part of the world are:


Thai curry
I think you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant in Thailand that doesn’t have Thai curry on the menu.
Whilst these curries share a common base of spicy curry paste (the main components of which are chillies, shrimp paste, shallots, galangal, lemon grass, coriander root, turmeric and kaffir lime peel lovingly pounded or blended together) and coconut milk, there are a delightful range to choose from. Red, yellow and green curries are probably the most ubiquitous and mainly differ in levels of increasing spiciness. If you fancy a blow-the-roof-off-your-mouth dish then try a jungle curry which has a serious kick. Other variants include the mild massaman and the peanutty phanang curries. With such an array of curries to try it’s surprising that we managed to eat anything else!

Pad Thai
This probably jostles with curry for the most popular Thai dish. Pad Thai is an incredibly quick and easy dish to cook: flat noodles fried with egg and vegetables in an oyster- fish-soy sauce. Definitely a good meal to grab on the run.

Drunken noodles
Drunken noodles are disappointingly alcohol free (yet still tasty). This is another noodle stir-fry that varies from Pad Thai mainly in the thickness of the noodles, with wider noodles and spicier sauce characterising this dish.

Tom yum
Tom yum is a delicious and surprisingly filling hot and sour soup. The fresh fragrance of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves makes your mouth water as you bring the spoon to your lips, taking your first slurp you are immediately hit by the sourness of the lime juice, saltiness of the fish sauce and spiciness of fresh chillis and a delightful warm feeling as it slides down.

Noodle soup
This dish is fairly ubiquitous throughout Eastern Asia but has only featured now as we found a fantastic (and incredibly cheap at 35 Baht – 70p) noodle soup stall. So impressed were we by the fare served up by the lovely Thai lady at the place that we ate here three out of the four days we spent in Bangkok! This dish is pretty self explanatory, a chicken broth with noodles, vegetables, and in the case of our favourite stall pork balls (made to a forty year old recipe) and wontons. It’s even better when seasoned with fish sauce and chilli flakes.


Making the pork balls for noodle soup. They taste better than they look!


Many thanks go to Pey Shan’s mum who cooked most of the food we ate whilst in Malaysia and who welcomed us into the family’s Chinese new year feasts. Everything she cooked was delicious and we certainly didn’t go hungry!

A steamboat is essentially the same as the hotpot described in my earlier post on Vietnamese food, a constantly heated broth to which all manner of meat, fish balls and vegetables are added and which you help yourself to until you’ve had your fill. We enjoyed the true family steamboat experience on Chinese New Year’s Eve with the family gathered around the table, dipping into the steamboat at will and with several sittings to accomodate all the visiting family members, guests and their appetites!

Smoked duck
Our New Year’s Eve steamboat was accompanied by strips of smoked duck. These tasty morsels of meat can be wrapped in a lettuce leaf, tempering the strong smoky flavour of the duck and adding a refreshing crunch. This delicious delicacy was definitely a welcome first for us.

Suckling pig
On the first day of the Chinese New Year we again gathered around the table with Pey Shan’s family for some steamboat but this time accompanied by the pièce de résistance, roast suckling pig! Another delicacy for the occasion, the crispy skin of the roasted piglet is delicious when dipped in plum sauce.

Chinese salad (prosperity toss)
Another special dish that we experienced on the first day of the new year was a salad of shredded vegetables, smoked salmon and a sweet sauce, tossed high in the air by all members of the family accompanied by cheerful wishes for the year ahead.

Roti Canai
Malaysia is a real melting pot of races, something reflected in its food. Whilst the dishes described so far have been mainly Chinese, Pey Shan was also keen for us to try some traditional Malay food. To this end we sampled Roti Canai, a flaky pancake type bread, similar to the Indian paratha and enjoyed by dipping in a curry sauce. Another variant (I believe) of this bread was fried and rolled into an upturned cone, draped in strawberry and chocolate sauces, providing a sweet snack or dessert.

Laksa is a fantastic curry noodle soup with a good lashing of spice, often served up in hard to finish quantities!

Rotiboy buns
The smell wafting out of a Rotiboy stall promises that a treat is in store. These scrumptious little buns are best sampled straight from the oven, with a sweet crunchy outside giving way to the soft fluffy interior and molten butter centre that will always leave you wanting more.

Theobroma hot chocolate
The best hot chocolate in the world. There’s really not much more to say as words simply will not do justice to this mug of chocolate heaven. I’m just sad that this chain originating in New Zealand hasn’t made it out to Europe yet!

And with that we say goodbye to the intense flavours and spices of Asia and look forward to a new culinary adventure in South America…