The First Ito En New York Chackathon, July 2016

Although I only started drinking tea on a daily basis after living in China (short story: I’d go to a local noodle hole-in-the-wall, the waiter would drop – in addition to tea – twigs, leaves, and berries of vague provenance into a teapot; somehow, from that, came my enthusiasm for Camellia sinensis), I owe special gratitude to Japan and its predilection for unsweetened varieties.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (4)Enter, the July 30th Chackathon (第1回茶ッカソン) in New York, sponsored by the Japanese tea company Ito En, and with lunch provided by Cha An.  The phrase chackathon combines cha, Japanese for tea, and hackathon, Silicon Valleynese for carpal tunnel syndrome.  The free Manhattan event was the first not held on the Pacific coast.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (2)Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (3)In essence, for every chackathon, Ito En invites the public to brainstorm various ideas on how to best promote matcha, or finely ground green tea leaves, and its health benefits to US consumers.

Manhattan, New York - Ito En (Tea) Chackathon July 2016 (1)Although I was unable to stay the whole day, at the end of the event, attendees – after having been separated into small groups for a couple of hours – made short presentations detailing their strategies.  I’d go back again if I knew that I could stay the whole day.  Heck, I’ve already gone through a matcha shot and a half-bottle of genmaicha since waking up.

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Bom Apetite! A Bunch of Brazilian Bites

Judging by the title, you could be forgiven if you thought that this post was about mosquitos preying on tourists.  Maybe.

Instead, I’ll focus on some memorable food from my recent time in Brazil.  It was mostly to check out Iguazu Falls, but I also had long layovers in Manaus and Rio de Janeiro.

However, since my first visit to Brazil in 2007, it occurred to me that I still didn’t know much about the culinary landscape in that massive country.  Sure, there’s the crowd-pleasing açaí, and the churrascaria that makes you walk at a 90-degree angle after indulging a bit too much, but what else is there?  On the other hand, I could take the train to Newark, New Jersey (seriously) to find out…but that would be too easy…

Manaus, Brazil - Cupuaçu Juice

How nice of them to place it in a measuring cup; is that how nutrition labels are done in Brazil? Guess I should cut back.

As I mentioned above, my layover in Manaus – the largest city in the Amazon basin – was not only long, but also from 22:30 ’til about 05:00.  With those hours, and without having visited the city before, I decided to wander around the mostly deserted streets looking for snacks to check off the list.

Finally, I ended up at some casual late-night outdoor cafeteria with a welcome list of tropical fruit juices and shakes.  Though acerola was tempting, it’s rather easy to find added to drinks in Japanese convenience stores.  So, cupuaçusem/não açúcar (without/no sugar, as usual) was the easy choice.

It wasn’t a terribly memorable flavor though.  Somewhat creamy, slightly sweet and sour, but nothing too inspired.  What the heck, Amazon??  Even the Brazilian tap water had more going on.


Manaus Airport (MAO), Brazil - Pão de QueijoPão de queijo, aka cheese bread, usually made from cassava flour and Minas cheese.

This is by no means an ad for the above chain; it wasn’t good.  However, it’s my only surviving photo of pão de queijo, taken at a time where sleep had been missing from my schedule for nearly 36 hours.

In short, they’re savory.  They’re addictive.  They’re unhealthy.  Demorou! (Heck, yeah!)

No wonder they made it onto the list.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - BrigadeiroBrigadeirosSupposedly, they were created at a time when fresh milk and sugar were hard to come by, so someone decided to mix sweetened condensed milk, butter, and chocolate.  But then, what was in the chocolate?

In any event, these too, are difficult to stop eating.  If they were all mashed together into one giant pie, I wouldn’t have even tried them this time.  Damn their convenient take-away size.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Tapioca Vegetarian Sandwich and Açai ShakeA couple of friends had mentioned that I should check out a casual Rio chain called polis sucos to have a glass of açaí.  It just so happened that I had only enough money left for the açaí, vegetarian tapioca (flour) sandwich and metro ride back to my hotel, so that worked out.

After trying it a few times during that trip, I really didn’t take to açaí. The taste was akin to a preppy berry, whatever that means.  The flavor transported me more to the Pacific Northwest of the US – which is usually a good thing for food – than to anywhere tropical, though it was by no means as dull as the cupuaçu.  Also, the tapioca sandwich was grainy and probably has a cousin in sandpaper.

Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil - ChurrascariaThankfully, the exchange rate between US dollars and Brazilian reais was still favorable.  Consequently, I had to try one of the all-you-can-eat barbecue places.  In addition to the numerous cuts/types of meat, they also had some Lebanese/Syrian and Japanese items, likely due A) to the influences on Brazil by immigrants from those countries, and B) to common places of origin of tourists.  The drink is cashew apple juice.

Do you think a comida foi na moral (the food was better than expected)? What would you try?

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Product Review: The Gracious Gourmet

Note: In exchange for a review, Bridgewater, Connecticut-based The Gracious Gourmet sent me three different spreads  – roasted eggplant tapenade, hatch chile pesto, and portobello mushroom tapenade.  All photos are courtesy of The Gracious Gourmet.

After spending nearly 25 years in the retail industry, a power outage fortuitously thrust Nancy Wekselbaum into the food business. In 2006, at the urging of a friend, she started to sell her (now known as) dried fruit chutneyTen years later, there is a large variety of dips, tapenades, and spreads, both savory and sweet – as well as completely vegan and gluten-free – and that’s where I come in.

the_gracious_gourmet_hatch_chile_pesto2At a recent Manhattan cheese event hosted by these folks, I quite enjoyed the hatch chile pesto.  (Hatch chilies are one of my many edible weaknesses.) Although it lacked my desired kick, the tanginess paired well with the variety of carbs available.  Based on that one product alone, I decided to visit The Gracious Gourmet‘s website.  Let’s look at a couple more jars.

the_gracious_gourmet_portobello_mushroom_tapenade2As a kid, I hated mushrooms.  Eating them, too.  But then, some time ago, our gardener brought us some hen-of-the-woods from our lawn to try, and I was incapacitated hooked.

Portobello mushrooms are good culinary canvases.  Make a sandwich out of – or with – them, roast them, grill them, or…turn them into tapenade.  Although I was hoping for more of an earthy flavor, the portobello mushroom tapenade still went well on my (even more olive oil-basted) crostini.

the_gracious_gourmet_roasted_eggplant__tapenade2The roasted eggplant tapenade might have been my favorite of the three.

Somehow or another, eggplant was another food that I never liked in the halcyon days of youth, but now, it might be my most consumed (fruit?) vegetable.  In addition to the eggplant, garlic and cilantro stood out as the dominant flavors.  I’d even spread this stuff on grilled eggplant.

Which of The Gracious Gourmet’s products do you fancy?

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2016 New York Summer Fancy Food Show

The New York Summer Fancy Food Show returned in 2016 with a vengeance.  I became stuffed after the first three aisles – as opposed to the usual four – and found that once again, Tunisia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Korea were the regional highlights, with peanut butter, Italian cheeses, harissa – and condiments in generaland chocolate the stand-out foods.

On the whole, I neglected to take photos at this year’s event, but I have a few things to mention:

2016 New York Summer Fancy Food Show (1)Brand name of the show goes to Snob, the Ecuadorianfood company specializing in spreads, tinned canned fruits and vegetables, and syrups.

2016 New York Summer Fancy Food Show (2)Nightmare: I receive an invitation to spend a night in a room made entirely of parmiggiano, but I’m lactose-intolerant.

2016 New York Summer Fancy Food Show (3)The haul. Missing from the photo: lots and lots of seaweed, one of my favorite snacks of all time.

Calabro‘s straciatella was delicious, as were the tiger nut horchata and pinjur, and I’m always on the lookout for spice mixes.


c/o Casablanca Foods

I had a nice brief chat with the folks at Mina Harissa, so they offered me a couple of jars.  Although the parent company – Casablanca Foods – also produces a shakshuka sauce, as I’ve long been in the spicy food camp, their harissa has my number.

In case you’re interested in the back story, Mina is the name of a Moroccan woman who helped cooked for her ten siblings.  After some time in Paris, she moved to New York, where she became a private caterer.

Victoria Gourmet_Mediterranean Seasoning_Jar_Can

c/o Victoria Gourmet

Woburn, Massachusetts-based Victoria Gourmet was founded in 1998 by Victoria Taylor; her spice blends, salts, peppers, brines, and gift sets can all be found at more than 3000 retailers and various restaurant chains throughout North America.

I’m always open to trying new spices and blends – durian and Sichuan peppercorn, anyone? – and the folks at Victoria Gourmet gladly provided me with a delectable Mediterranean mix that pairs well with my usual humble snack of olive oil, tomatoes, ground cayenne pepper, and a baguette.  Next, I’ll have to check out some of their spicier concoctions, because I can’t seem to eat anything savory without a bit of heat.

Indeed, the 2016 New York Summer Fancy Food Show was another hit for seat belt extension manufacturers and food bloggers.  My hope for the 2017 show is that the Balkans and the Caucasus have a much larger space to show off their underappreciated cuisines, and that China’s awfully large – and forlorn – space is replaced with an extra restroom.  Believe it, it would see far more traffic.

Did you go to the show?  Whether or not you did, what are your thoughts about it?

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Idiosyncratic Indonesia

Oh, looks like we’ve been down this alliterative avenue before.  However, this time, we’ll paint Indonesia in a more playful light.

I’ve gathered three photos that have amused me since coming across their subjects in Java last year…although one of those subjects has been permanently banned from my bento for many years.

Care to guess what that is?

Jakarta, Indonesia - No Durians on Train Sign

“Prohibited to bring things with a stinging smell”

Durian.  Yes, this sign is quite common throughout Southeast Asia.  You’ll see it throughout various modes of transport, hotels, shopping malls, and synagogues elevators.

That said, over in Jakarta, it might be considered one of the better aromas from which to choose.

Jakarta, Indonesia - Air Freshener Remote ControlWhile we’re on the topic, how about this remote control for an air freshener?  I noticed this in an apartment in Jakarta.  Sadly, my traveling mates and I never tried it out, but I wonder if you could buy a durian-scented version?  What would be in the greatest hits collection?

Solo (Surakarta), Indonesia - Credit Card on Public Transit (1)Although I was only in Solo (a city in central Java) once, I was incredulous at the possibility of using a credit card machine to board a public bus.  Nuanced.  As some who actively likes testing out public transit, this was surprisingly a first for me.  Not exactly efficient during rush hour; on the plus side, these buses actually had four sides.

Fancy a visit to Indonesia now?

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Product Reviews: Zesty Z, GoMacro, and ReGrained

Note: In exchange for a brief review, I received the following products:

Today’s mentions include Zesty Z‘s zaatar, GoMacro‘s macro bars, and ReGrained‘s beer bars.

I was first – as far as the memory bank is letting on – introduced to zaatar, the delectable, versatile and vegan spread, on a trip to Lebanon in 2007.  Some shop in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut was selling some awfully tempting mix of olive oil, sesame seeds, oregano, sumac, and thyme – that is, zaatar – on top of freshly baked khubz (pita).  How could I turn that down?

Beirut, Lebanon - Khubz with Zaatar(OK, so nothing in this photo screams Beirut, but take my word for it…that’s zaatar.)

Since then, I’ve bought many a zaatar blend, but Brooklyn-based Zesty Z seals the deal in that theirs already includes olive oil (and you don’t even need to refrigerate it).  To clarify, it’s not difficult finding good olive oil or zaatar in New York, but Zesty Z would totally come in handy if I lived in East Asia again.  Co-founders Lorraine and her son, Alexander Harik only started selling her zaatar in March of this year; their mission is to help popularize zaatar, and possibly add other variations/products down the line.  They’re a garrulous pair, and I had the pleasure of speaking with them at this year’s New York Fancy Food Show.

It’s healthy, it’s enjoyable at anytime of the day, and has ingredients that shouldn’t spook the average (American) consumer.

Zesty Z-ZaatarZesty Z and falafel.  It was a nostalgic duo.

I was an instant fan.   How about you?

Organic! Gluten-free!  Vegan!  Kosher! Non-gmo! Soy-free! Exclamation point!

To be fair, none of those words ever factors into my requirements in food purchases…but that won’t stop me from ever eating products with these attributes.

So, GoMacro, what’s a macro bar?  The idea stems from the term macrobiotic, which focuses on balancing one’s lifestyle with a high-fiber, low-fat diet based on the consumption of whole grains, vegetables, and beans.  Nothing spicy, either?  Well, you already lost me, but in the interest of fulfilling my duty, let’s move on to the bars.

GoMacro sent me a set of twelve of their macro bars– sesame butter date, peanut butter, cashew butter, granola coconut, cashew caramel, sunflower butter chocolate chip, peanut butter chocolate chip, banana almond butter, almond butter carob, apple walnut, coconut peanut butter chocolate, and cherry berry.

Whereas I really liked the apple walnut and cherry berry bars, probably more than any other bar that I’ve purchased at a store in the same ilk as REI or Patagonia, the rest had flavors that didn’t distinguish them from any other bar.  However, if GoMacro would continue to add varieties that transported me to flavor profiles of the Pacific Northwest, I’d be buying up the lot of ’em.

ReGrained, a Bay Area-startup (a phrase rarely heard.  ever.), takes brewer’s grains – that is, grains leftover from the beer brewing process – from local breweries, and turns those into granola bars that are also good sources of protein and fiber.

Currently, they have two flavors, Honey Almond IPA and Chocolate Coffee Stout. The honey almond IPA had a rather emphatic almondy note, of which I approve, and the chocolate coffee stout tended towards coffee, what it is.  They were both slightly bitter and not exactly filling, but I’d be open to trying other types, should they be offered.

Have you tried any of these three brands?

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Hotel Review: The Alexander, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (1)

Photo c/o The Alexander

Disclaimer: In exchange for this hotel review, I received a two nights-stay in one of The Alexander‘s two bedroom California king suites.  (I had a last-minute need to be in Indianapolis, Indiana earlier than anticipated.  Fortunately, Jake, one of the front desk agents, was very helpful and proactively asked sales – on a Sunday, when they weren’t in-house – to get back to me about extending my stay from one night to two.)

It was around midnight when I had just stepped off of Amtrak’s Hoosier State service from Chicago . The Alexander, part of the Dolce Hotels and Resorts collection, is a short walk from both the Amtrak station and downtown; if biking is your thing, the hotel lets guests borrow a bike for free.  Considering the pleasant weather at the time, I decided to hop on the Monon Trail to visit the Broad Ripple neighborhood in the north.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (10)

Lobby — Photo c/o The Alexander

Although I checked in around midnight, Rebekah, the front desk agent at the time, was quite cheerful and eager to assist.  I was looking forward to my room, partially to see if a basket of fresh fruit would be available.  Well, Rebekah said that wasn’t the case, but she kindly went to Plat 99, the restaurant and bar next to check-in, to grab me some peaches and a pear.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (3)

Plat 99

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (9)

Apple and cucumber water, and candies…quite welcome after a slog in that humidity.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (5)The two peaches and the pear in my spacious suite.  As a New Yorker and one-time resident of Hong Kong, I’ve gotta say…those were good peaches.  OK, I mean, I’m not used to so much space.  Yes, having a suite clearly adds to the square footage, but even the standard rooms were generously sized.

More importantly, the common areas of the hotel, the restaurants, my room…everything looked immaculate.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (4)

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (11)The Indianapolis Art Museum helps to curate The Alexander with various works created by artists from around the world.

As a New Yorker and one-time resident of Hong Kong, I’ve gotta say…those were good peaches.  OK, I mean, I’m not used to so much space.  Yes, having a suite clearly adds to the square footage, but even the standard rooms were generously sized.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (6)More importantly, the common areas of the hotel, the restaurants, my room…everything looked immaculate.  That’s not something I’m used to in a hotel, either.

That said, one of my two complaints is that it was quite easy to hear other guests through the walls.  In the suite above, it sounded as if a bacchanal was happening.  Raise the tv volume by a substantial amount, and there’s your stopgap.  Or, call the front desk, I suppose.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (4)

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (11)The Indianapolis Art Museum helps to curate The Alexander with various works created by artists from around the world.  Though I’m not much of a contemporary art fan, the pieces do help reduce the usual sterile feel that often plagues hotels.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (7)I was offered a free buffet breakfast for both nights, and I’ll admit, for a US hotel, it was well-stocked.  You have the omelette corner, the breads and spreads, the mains, the cereal, yogurt, and dried and fresh fruit.

My second complaint about the hotel involves the rather slow service I had both days during breakfast.  After one of the waiters discovered that I was eating, he came by way too many times. The next day, the waitresses were slightly less intrusive, but in all, the service was not a high point.

The Alexander (A Dolce Hotel), Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (8)

Going overboard at the buffet is a specialty of mine.

Wandering around the hotel, the staff generally seemed eager to please.  One of the agents let me sneak in a coffee and some dried fruit from a station typically reserved for meeting-goers.

The Alexander is a popular business hotel in Indianapolis, but without the stuffy, cookie-cutter vibe of the usual chains.  If I was beckoned back to Indiana’s capital, I’d certainly consider them again.

The Alexander is located at: 333 S Delaware St, Indianapolis, IN 46204.  Their direct line is +1 (317) 624-8200. They opened in January 2013, and currently offer 157 guest rooms and 52 extended-stay units.

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