Favorite cuisines from our travels…

My wife and I have taken to playing a bit of a game while we’re travelling.  Let’s call it “Name the Top 5…”  If I’m being accurate I suppose it’s less of a game and more of a discussion-starter.  First, I’ll try to come up with a travel-related idea for a top 5 list.  Something like “What are your 5 favorite cities we’ve visited”?  Or “what are the top 5 Roman ruins we’ve seen”?  Then we discuss/debate/reminisce.  Next it’s her turn.  This usually goes back and forth for a few rounds until we move on to something else.

Obviously these past couple of years we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to quite a few different countries (18 and counting), so we have a fair amount to compare.  Sometimes these lists are pretty easy, but most of the time it’s really tough to whittle down.

Anyways, while in Beirut this past weekend we were enjoying a delicious Lebanese meal and the question came up – What are the top 5 cuisines we’ve experienced in our travels?

Admittedly this is a pretty broad question, so we had to come up with some criteria to help narrow our choices.  A few questions we asked ourselves were – Did we get tired of the cuisine by the end of the trip?  Did the location have a lot of memorable meals?  How diverse were the food options at local restaurants?

The list we came up with surprised us a bit (no Mexican or Indian, which at home both tend to be among our favorites).

Anyways, without further adieu, here it is.

5.  Italian

Who doesn’t like Italian food?  Outside of Italy, Italian food may be the most ubiquitous “ethnic” cuisine on the planet.  Heck, there are three Italian restaurants within a 10 minute walk from our place in suburban Cairo.

The traditional thin-crusted napoli-style pizza was a definite highlight.

pizza in Pompeii

pizza in Pompeii

As were the Tuscan sandwiches we picked up at delis in both Florence and Bologna.

enjoying a sandwich in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence

enjoying a sandwich in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence

Of course, the pasta wasn’t too bad either.

Tagliatelle pasta with prawns and zucchini in Venice.

Tagliatelle pasta with prawns and zucchini in Venice.

4.  Guatemalan

Maybe it was due to the fact that for half of our trip we were doing a home stay with a local family and had most of our meals prepared for us from scratch by the mom of the house, but I really enjoyed Guatemalan cuisine.

For the most part Guatemalan food is very similar to other Latin American countries that we’ve visited (tacos, empanadas, tamales, chicken/rice dishes with various salsa/moles, tortilla soups, etc.), but for some reason I enjoyed it so much more than our trip around the Yucatan a few years earlier.

In addition to our home-cooked meals, a few highlights were street tacos and papillan (chili-chicken stew) from our cooking class.

DSCF5563

One of many meals of street tacos

DSCF5470

Papillan, guatemalan rice and re-fried beans

3.  Lebanese

My wife and I had a bit of a debate about this one.  She preferred Turkish food to Lebanese at this spot.  In many ways they are quite similar – cold & hot appetizers, salads and grilled meats.  But the main reason I couldn’t go with Turkish food – pide.  This canoe-shaped Turkish style pizza was, to put it nicely, awful.

As for the Lebanese itself, we were only in the country for a handful of days, but I really enjoyed literally everything we ate there.  From the beef shwarma on the corniche in Beirut, to the traditional lunch in the fantastic setting of Zahle, it was all delicious.

mmm..... Beef Swarma

mmm….. Beef Swarma

Fattoush

Fattoush

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kofta, grilled steak and chicken as part of an amazing lunch in Zahle

2.  Greek

Greek was a real contender for the top spot here.  While I’d always enjoyed Greek food, I’m not sure I would’ve put it in my top 10 favorite cuisines, let alone top 5 before visiting the country.  As I would find out Greek food is much more than souvlaki, tzatziki, pita bread and Greek salad (although all of that is there and was better than anywhere else I’ve tried it).

Here are just a few of our other highlights…

Fried saganaki

Fried saganaki

Tomato Fritters served with a yogurt & mint dipping sauce.

Tomato Fritters served with a yogurt & mint dipping sauce.

Stuffed tomatoes & zucchini

Stuffed tomatoes & zucchini

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree

And I can’t forget the gyros.  Lord knows I ate enough of them over there!

Standard gyro - complete with shaved pork, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki & "fried potatoes" aka french fries

Standard gyro – complete with shaved pork, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki & “fried potatoes” aka french fries

1.  Thai

My top selection goes to Thai.  As a big fan of spicy food, I was in heaven on our trip to Thailand.  I’ll always remember early in our trip when our cooking class instructor asked me after finding out that I liked spicy food “Do you like European spicy or Thai spicy?”  For those of you who have been to Thailand, you know the difference.

But besides the spiciness, all the curries and stir fries were fantastic.  I feel like I could’ve spent another month there eating nothing else, and still not get tired of the food there.  The Chiang Mai curry we made at our cooking class was easily one of the best curries I’ve ever eaten.  I’ve tried to replicate it several times at home, but for some reason it never turns out quite right.

Chiang Mai Curry

Chiang Mai Curry

Basil chicken stir fry

Basil chicken stir fry

Another highlight was the seafood on Koh Chang – the tamarind red snapper and a blue crab curry were dishes I still remember like they were yesterday.

Fried red snapper with tamarind sauce

Fried red snapper with tamarind sauce

And of course I can’t forget my daily morning roti pancake…

Banana chocolate roti

Banana chocolate roti

Well, that’s the list.  What do you think?

Anyone else hungry?

___________________________

 

Advertisements

Wine Making in Egypt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today my wife and I had the opportunity to tour the largest winery in Egypt, Gianaclis, near Alexandria in the Nile River delta.  Even though wine is not particularly popular with most Egyptians today, it has a long history in this country.  There is evidence of wine in Egypt dating back almost 6000 years, where jars containing tannin residues have been found in the tombs of pharaohs.  The Ancient Egyptians were also the first people to document the process of making wine via painted scenes on pottery and in tombs.

arriving at Gianaclis

arriving at Gianaclis

reception/dining room

reception/dining room

So roughly three hours after leaving Cairo we finally reached the Gianaclis winery and were greeted with a light snack of mini-sandwiches, pastries, fruit and juice.  This was followed by a short documentary on the history of and process of making wine at Gianaclis.  Apparently Gianclis has been in Egypt since 1882, though for much of the past 50 years the winery had been managed by Egyptian military officers who cared little for the integrity of the wine-making process.  Fortunately, this has changed in recent years.  Now under the management of Al Ahram Beverages Company (owned by Heineken International) the premises has been completely updated and international standards have been implemented.

After the documentary we were introduced to our guide, David, a consultant for Gianaclis.  David has spent his entire career in the wine/spirits industry all over the world and for the past couple of years has been working to help modernize and revitalize Gianaclis’ operation.  It was evident that David must have a background in microbiology/biochemistry as he did an amazing job at communicating rather complicated biological and chemical processes in an easy to understand form without dumbing things down too much.  It really seemed like if given the opportunity he could happily speak for hours about the process of making wine, which was great.

To begin our tour, David led us outside to the winery’s experimental garden.  He showed us the plants where they are experimenting with different water delivery systems with the hope of improving efficiency.  As you might imagine the climate in Egypt presents certain challenges to growing grapes.  While the weather is warm and incredibly consistent day-to-day (which is a huge benefit), the soil is sandy, it rarely rains and the water from the Nile has a higher salinity than would be ideal.

Experimental garden

Experimental garden

grape flower buds - these grapes should be ready for harvest by early July

grape flower buds – these grapes should be ready for harvest by early July

Following the garden we meandered through the complex, stopping every so often to discuss the various processes associated with the building we were standing in front of.  We found out that while they do have a small vineyard onsite, the majority of their grapes are either grown at the nearby Gianaclis Vineyard or by local farmers (for their lower end brands).

touring the grounds

touring the grounds

As we toured the facility it was amazing to me (and I suppose this is probably true for all food/drink producers) how virtually nothing in the entire process goes to waste.  Unusable skins and seeds are further fermented to make various types of spirits.  Protein that is filtered out (to remove wine’s naturally cloudy appearance) is sold to animals producers where it is used as feed.  Even the twigs/stems that are discarded from the grape bunches are sold to tanners who use it in the process of making leather.

wine barrels

wine barrels

bottling facility

bottling facility

When we returned to the visitor centre we were treated to a great buffet lunch and of course some wine tasting.  We got to sample three of their wines – a white (Chateau de Granville) and two reds (Cape Bay Merlot and Chateau Grand Marquis – a Bobal/Cabernet Sauvignon).  My favorite was probably the white although the Grand Marquis was quite nice as well.  Of course we had the opportunity to purchase wine from their shop onsite, but as their prices were the exact same as what they are in the city, we decided to pass.

sampling the inventory

sampling the inventory

buffet lunch

buffet lunch

All in all it was a really great day.  It’s always nice to get out of the city and see a different part of the country.  And when you can add wine to the mix, it’s even better!  If we have visitors come our way, I wouldn’t hesitate to return as it makes for a very enjoyable day trip.

Cheers!

_______________________

Detoxing from cleanses

cleanse

I’ve been wanting to write a piece on the ridiculousness of cleanses for a while now, but for some reason just never got around to it.

Then I read this piece from the NY Post.

Apparently now, not only are misinformed adults perpetuating the myth that cleanses are a legitimate practice, but kids as young as 6 are starting to get into the act too.

I’m not exactly sure how “cleansing” became such an integral part of the healthy living equation?  Well, that’s not entirely true.  I kind of get it.  Today I did a quick Google search for ‘cleanses’  and got over 2 million hits.  I also got over 6.5 million hits for ‘detox diets’, including many from apparently legitimate sources, often with celebrity endorsements. The Master Cleanse, Juju Cleanse, Candida Cleanse, Dr. Oz’s 48hr Cleanse, Colon Cleanse and the Wild Rose Detox are just a few of the more popular examples of what’s out there these days.

And besides, what rational, health conscious individual wouldn’t want to get rid of all the toxic substances that have built up in their body through years of eating processed foods, exposure to various environmental agents, etc?  From that perspective, you’d be a fool not to detox, right?

Ah, if only it were that simple.

What is cleansing?

First I figured I’d briefly touch on exactly what a cleanse entails.

The act of cleansing can take a number of different forms.  God knows there’s enough different variations.  However, all cleanses contain at least one, and often several, of the following components:

  1. Detox diet – This would be where you try to eliminate all the “toxic” food from your diet.  These diets typically recommend consuming only unprocessed foods and avoiding anything that isn’t organic.
  2. Juice fasting – Many cleanses involve some sort of juice fasting, which consists of a period of time (3 days or longer) where the dieter is restricted to exclusively drinking juice.  Sometimes these juices can be made from fresh ingredients at home, but often you need to purchase them as part of an elaborate cleansing program.
  3. Superfoods – Cleanses often include the incorporation of “superfoods”, usually in the form of exotic plants or fruits.
  4. Supplements – These also tend to be a hallmark of most cleanses. Supplements can be any number of naturopathic type ingredients, often laxatives, which help to “flush out” your system.

What’s good about cleanses?

I thought I’d start by commenting on what is good about cleansing because the list is pretty short.  Cleanses almost universally promote the removal of processed foods from one’s diet.  As a general recommendation, this is certainly a good one.  They also tend to heavily rely on the consumption of fruits and vegetables, which is never a bad thing.

That’s about it though.

And what about the not so good?

Where do I begin?  Cleanses take good nutritional advice, like avoiding processed foods or consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, and pervert it to a ridiculous extreme.  They essentially twist that advice to a point where any benefit one may get from them is overshadowed by their downsides.

A cornerstone of good nutrition is balance.  Cleanses pretty much are the opposite of balance.  They promote the consumption of a VERY limited variety of foods.  If we look at the popular Master Cleanse, it consists of 7-10 days where you can ONLY drink 6-12 glasses of water with a mixture of maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper in them (you also have to take daily laxatives).  That’s it!  Eating this way, even for a relatively short duration, essentially guarantees side effects such as fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal distress and irratibility.  Longer term or repeated use can increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies, long-term weight gain, a weakened immune system, and heart and kidney problems.  And really, how could it not?  When you’re on this regimen you’re basically starving yourself.

A big issue with cleanses are that they are temporary by definition.  When it comes to your health any benefits you may see from a temporary change, will themselves be temporary.  For example, when on a cleanse many people report seeing improvements in their weight, glycemic control or cholesterol levels.  The problem is, if after your cleanse is over you end up going back to what you were eating pre-cleanse, so will your weight, blood sugar and LDL.  If you’re looking to make any lasting changes to your health, you need to make permanent changes to your lifestyle.

Another problem with cleanses is that because many of them require the purchase of supplements or juices, they can be very expensive.  It’s not uncommon for these cleansing “packages” to cost hundreds of dollars per cleanse.  And because cleansing isn’t generally viewed as a one-time activity, you can see that the monetary costs of cleansing will add up quickly.

I also have real concerns about the mindset that cleansing promotes.  It can act to give people an excuse to eat whatever they want, because, well, “they’ll be going on a cleanse next week anyways”.  It promotes a cycle of eating poorly (or not paying close attention to what one eats) followed by a short but intense phase of eating very restrictively.  In many cases, it sets up food as “the villian”, filled with toxic substances out to get you.  Basically it promotes an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.  Now I suppose it’s one thing when adults are making these decisions for themselves, but when they begin to pass these practices onto their children (as mentioned in the NY Post article above), I start to get really upset.  It’s mind boggling to me that these parents don’t seem to see how this isn’t a good thing.  Encouraging (or at least facilitating) your teenager to regularly cleanse with you is just setting them up for a lifetime of body image issues and yo-yo diets.  It really is madness.

But perhaps the most important reason why cleanses are so terrible is that there is ZERO evidence they do what they claim to actually do – that is remove toxins.  It’s true.  Cleanses do NOTHING to help remove toxins from your body.  The human body is a pretty amazing machine.  It already has several highly efficient mechanisms for eliminating toxins from it, namely the liver, kidneys and, of course, the colon.  Suffice to say, the practice of cleansing doesn’t do a thing to help these organs do their job.  You know that “toxic sludge” you eliminate from your colon when on a cleanse (generally facilitated by laxatives)?  That’s called feces.  Feces that would normally be “flushed” out of the body by regular bowel movements.  Cleansing just speeds up the process.

I did a quick PubMed* search for cleanse/detox diets, and guess how many results I got?  Four!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Four.  I wasn’t expecting a lot of papers, but I was shocked by that low a number.  You know what that tells me?  That the idea of cleansing is so absurd to the medical/research community, they aren’t even bothering to waste their time submitting grants to perform research on them (even for the purpose of discrediting them).  It would be a little like if some people got behind the idea that human beings could fly if they flapped their arms fast enough.  Based on our scientific understanding of the human body, we know this to be impossible.  There would be no reason to do research on it, even if there was a segment of the population that believed it to be true.  Trust me, if there was a possibility that cleanses had any impact on toxins in our body, there’d be a lot more research out there trying to prove or disprove it.  The fact that there’s essentially nothing is very telling.

(*for the non-scientific audience out there PubMed is a database of scientific journals.  It contains thousands of the most prestigious and critically reviewed science themed journals that exist.  Basically, if there were studies on cleanses, you’d find them on Pubmed)

The Bottom Line

The idea of detoxing your body by cleansing is one of the sillier practices you can do if your goal is to improve your health.  There is no evidence that cleansing has any impact on the levels of toxins in your body and it comes with a whole slew of downsides including, promoting an unhealthy relationship with food, significant expense and potential medical issues.  Cleanses are nothing more than a modern version of snake oil.  And frankly, it’s way past time we stopped believing that they were ever anything more than that to begin with.

_________________________