Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Sola en Salamanca

After all my talk about how I was going to bravely sally forth and travel alone through Spain, I am only truly alone after three and a half weeks of travel. I’d been lucky to have Anne for Madrid and Barcelona, Becca for Andalucia, and I noticed their absence sharply when I stepped off the 8-hour bus from Sevilla into the city of Salamanca. I arrived at the Pension Lisboa, a small cheap hotel selected by Lonely Planet, and I immediately wondered why it had been picked out of the myriad, small, cheap hotels in the city. The best I can say about it is that it was clean, which is an important attribute to be sure, but it didn’t totally balance out the hideous polyester floral bedspread. I felt like I had come to a guesthouse for genteel women fallen on hard times to come, live out their days and die.

I wasn’t really unhappy, though. I spent the first afternoon just sitting in the sun on the steps of the Colegio de Anaya of the Universidad de Salamanca, looking at the cathedral across the plaza but not really in any hurry to go inside. I wandered around the commercial district, buying a hat and gloves to protect me from the cold of Castilla y León, a brutal shock after sunny Sevilla. I walked through “the most beautiful Plaza Mayor in Spain.” I poked through the old building of the famous university and tried to find the good luck frog on the façade. I wandered through a pretty garden, unmarked on my map, and ate two kinds of buñuelos, little donuts filled with whipped cream or chocolate or buttercream, what have you.

And I survived my first dinner alone in Spain. I even enjoyed it.

I wandered around for awhile looking for a place where I wouldn’t feel too inconspicuous. I’d had lunch in Barcelona alone, but even super-social Spaniards eat lunch alone once in awhile, and I never felt like an oddity. But dinner was more challenging. I didn’t want to go into a bustling tapas bar filled with people laughing and jostling each other while holding drinks in their hands. I didn’t want to go into a desolate tapas bar with only old men who know each other from 50 years ago. I picked a sit-down restaurant, Rúa Mayor near the Plaza Mayor, because there was already one elderly woman tourist eating there alone. Thinking about the intrepid women who traveled alone in times when that was really weird gave me courage, that and the thought that I could soon have a glass of wine.

I started with the pimientos rellenos, the red peppers stuffed with potato, a bit of cod, and tiny shrimp, baked in an earthenware dish with a tomato sauce and cream. It had been run order the broiler, and the top was very attractive, brown and crispy. The potatoes were so smooth, they tasted almost cheesy, and the tomato sauce was sweet and rich. It came out very hot and I could feel myself getting happier and happier.

My entrée was simpler, churrasco de la ternera a la parilla, or a piece of grilled beef rib. It came crispy French fries and a mushroom sauce. It had a fair amount of gristle, but it was exactly what I wanted, something satisfying and simple.

Since I had no one to talk to, I talked to myself by writing in my journal and jotting notes about my meal. In a way, that satisfied me more than anything, to be writing again. I knew that I could have asked Becca or Anne for some time to write, but I had had to gorge myself on their company, like a bear preparing to hibernate. And I hopefully now had sufficient fat stored up to survive the rest of my solo trip.

By that point, the wine and food had made me woozy. I’d stuffed myself, since I’d only eaten Gummi bears and Maria biscuits all day. I was glad that the Pension Lisboa was so close. As I stumbled home and fell into my bed, I didn’t even notice the ugly bedspread.

Sevilla felt like home

After spending two days walking around the hills and pueblos blancos, or white villages, around Ronda, we returned to Sevilla for one night. It was like coming home. We went to one more flamenco show, an intense, beautiful performance at Casa de la Memoria Al-Andalus with a guitarist whose hands flashed as he played. We had pimientos de Padrón one more time at Modesto. Becca bought another shirt at Zara. And we went back to the Alameda de Hercules park.

The Alameda park in Sevilla was one of our favorite places in the city, which was odd because it wasn’t much of a park and more a long, skinny length of brown dirt and scrubby trees. It runs a long ways between the barrio of Macarena, where we initially stayed, and ends near the commercial, shopping district in the center of the city. They were clearly doing some remodeling, and one night, these giant metal statues showed up on the beds of even bigger trucks, but the construction didn’t stop people from congregating there almost every night, Monday through Friday.

The bars and restaurants that line the Alameda draw a crowd that’s a bit hipster, a bit grungy, the type that will happily sit around a guitar for hours, but also lots of children, as the Spanish are big on keeping their kids up at all hours. Becca and I couldn’t understand it—they didn’t look grouchy or tired, which I always thought was the reason for putting your kids to bed at 9. In the U.S., everyone says that when you have a child, it changes your life, and I’m sure it does, but I get the feeling that it wouldn’t change your life so much here. We saw extended families at outdoor bars late at night, from babies to grandparents all time. If I ever have a child, I will definitely be the kind of mother who takes her baby to the bar.

Almanara, our favorite restaurant on Alameda, would be just the kind of place a mother could take her children. During the day, it’s a sleek narrow column of a restaurant with some outdoor tables serving fruit drinks and smoothies, including the most intoxicatingly delicious lemonade with yuerbabuena. (Note to self: plant yuerbabuena in container garden next summer.) At night, they serve food from a mainly vegetarian menu, but it’s good! Really, I’m not kidding, and the menu even had words like “seitan” and “tempeh.”

The best thing we had was their gussied-up, more veggie-filled versions of the tortilla española, with eggplant in my case and courgettes, or baby squash, in Becca’s. There was plenty of cheese and plenty of salt, and the layers of potato and egg and eggplant almost melted together, they were so smooth.

We did have an odd seaweed pasta in a balsamic sauce, literally strips of seaweed taking the place of old-fashioned pasta. I’m sure it’s a low-carb dieter’s dream. It didn’t taste bad exactly, but it didn’t really taste good. Ambitious and imaginative, though, so I would give a B for effort.

And to prove that it is not a restaurant devoted to self-deprivation, Almanara serves an insanely delicious chocolate dessert. I’m not quite sure what it is—who knows, it might have soy or something, but it’s almost as firm as a frozen custard without quite being an ice cream. It actually tastes like chocolate, unlike many chocolate desserts, and they serve it with those simple Maria biscuits I like so much.

That was our last meal in Sevilla. The next day, Becca got on a plane back to New York and I got on a bus to Salamanca. (And 5 days later, here I am in Santiago de Compostela, getting ready to go on to Bilbao tomorrow.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Moroccan food and architecture in Granada

I have to admit, it was a bit of relief to arrive in Granada and eat Moroccan food. Maybe it was Jaime’s stories about the less-than-innocent origins of the Spanish love of pork, but I was ready to eat something other than jamón, and Granada turned out to be one of the best places to do so. All over Spain, I’d seen signs of Muslim immigration, but in Granada, the Moroccan presence was strongest, from the Moroccan crafts sold to tourists to the teterias or tea shops all over the Albayzin, the old and now new Muslim quarter. And of course, Granada is the home of the Alhambra.

We had a good lunch at a random little shop, more of a café than a restaurant with low tables on which they served good hummus and kefta, translated for Spaniards as albondigas, and which we know as those Middle Eastern meatballs. And then we found dinner at Restaurante Arrayanes.

It was obviously a popular restaurant and it filled up quickly after we walked in. The owner treated the restaurant like his baby and came to every table, asking if we needed anything, if we were enjoying ourselves. As a true Muslim restaurant, it didn’t serve alcohol, but it did serve a delicious lemonade made with mint.

The food was good, if not the best Moroccan meal I’ve ever had, but one thing did truly stand out—the “Macedonian” dessert. It was the dessert of the day, not on the menu, and so I'm not quite sure if it's literally called a "Macedonian." It was a soft molded dessert, not quite a custard but not quite a cake. It was sweet without being cloying and so comforting, you could feed it to a baby. We argued for a bit about what was in it—Becca thought saffron and coconut, I argued that it was carrot. I was gleeful when it turned out I was right. It had reminded me very much of an Indian carrot pudding I had years ago in San Francisco.

And so we were fortified for our hike up and around the Alhambra the next morning, but the need to cleanse myself of ham didn’t last long. The next night, we were back to plates of jam, cheese and olives, washed down with a touristy pitcher of sangria. Ah!

Gracias, Jaime, gracias

Córdoba was an easy trip from Sevilla, a short train ride that deposited us quickly near the winding, narrow alleyways of the historic center, where the tourist-to-local ratio feels like it’s 10 to 1. But when we went just a few blocks beyond the Mezquita, the justly famous mosque, we found quiet streets lined with white buildings and colorful flowerpots hanging on the walls. Our favorite restaurant turned out to be just outside the old city walls.

We had already had an afternoon snack at El Olivo, two glasses of manzanilla, the slightly salty yet appealing sherry so popular in Andalucia, and a plate of fried calamari, but we went back for dinner because of Jaime, the tour guide at Casa de Sefarad a museum devoted to the history of Sephardic Jews in Spain.

Jaime will probably be one of my favorite memories of Spain, rivaling the sight of Becca whizzing around the Mezquita in a wheelchair to rest her lame foot. The museum is located close to the one synagogue that wasn’t destroyed in Córdoba, and although it’s very small, really just 5 or 6 rooms, Jaime has so much to say, you can’t help but leave feeling a bit heady. He’s a classic nerd, so intensely interested in his subject that he draws everyone in, like a black hole. But he’s not at all the shy, retiring kind of nerd. He’s more like the arrogant professor who’s well-aware that he knows a lot, and although that would be annoying in a friend, it’s quite ideal in a tour guide.

We learned from Jaime how the Spanish love of jamon and all pork products comes, in part, from the Spanish desire to distinguish themselves from Jews or, in the case of the convertidos, to prove that they were no longer Jews after their expulsion in 1492. He also told us how at the same time, many of Spain’s most beloved dishes have Jewish origins. He talked about Maimonides, about families buying documents to hide their Jewish origins, and about how expelled Sephardic families sought to preserve their memories of their lives in Spain. Whenever he asked if there were any questions, he was met by a stunned, yet gratified silence.

In the end, though, Becca had a question. After all the other tourists had left and we were chatting with him about menorahs in the gift shop, she asked for a restaurant recommendation, a place that was good but “informal.” “¡Informal!” he exclaimed. “Quel horreur!” (He literally said that in French.)

After we stopped laughing, he did recommend “El Olivo,” and thus cemented his place in my memories as a most knowledgeable person. The plaza, which had been sunny and pleasant earlier, was now golden with the light reflecting off the stone of the city walls. It was mid-October and we were sitting outside in weather that felt like the best of New York’s summer nights.

Becca loved her pisto, which turned out to be a Spanish version of ratatouille served with two fried eggs. There were plenty of tomatoes to make it sweet and lovable.

And I, I adored my chuletitas de cordero, or grilled baby lamp chops liberally salted with coarse sea salt. They were possibly in the top 5 favorite things I’ve eaten in Spain, so simple and so good. I could have eaten 10 more. (It also felt right to eat lamb after feeding murcillo or blood sausage to Becca earlier that day.)

When it was time to order dessert, I insisted we order two. I thought Becca’s choice of pears poached in red wine was boring and got tarta de queso, or Spanish cheesecake, instead. They were both good but the pears put Becca over the edge. I had to admit I’d never had poached pears so smoothly delicious, like eating pear mousse. I accused Becca, “I thought you didn’t like soft desserts!” to which she retorted, “I do when they’re this good.”

And then the kind old waiter brought us, on the house, glasses of ice-cold sweet lemony liqueur.

As Becca put it, “If I were Spanish, I would never leave Spain.”

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sun, beer, and fried food in Sevilla

Sevilla seems like the kind of place where people would eat fried fish.

The Rio Guadalquivir runs through the town, with most of the old city on the eastern bank, but with the old fishing neighborhood of Triana on the western bank. The city has developed smooth bike lanes that run along much of the river, as well as a lovely new bicycle-based public transportation system, Sevici, where you can pick up a bike from one station and drop it off at another station clear across town for about 1 Euro every half hour. The bikes are insanely heavy, maybe to keep you from being tempted to steal it, but they have sturdy bike baskets, good night lights, and everything else you would need to cruise around town. Brand-new bike system + brand-new river-view bike lanes = sheer joy.

So back to the fried fish. It’s such a stereotype that people in Sevilla don’t work very much and just enjoy life sitting in the thousand little plazas that dot the city, but cruising around town and sitting in those same plazas ourselves, it did seem sort of true. And that kind of carefree, easygoing attitude just seems to go with an affinity for fried fish, especially since fried fish goes so well with a sunny plaza and a cold beer. Of course, my view is probably colored by the fact that Sevilla actually is famous for pescaito frito, or a platter of assorted fried fish.

One night, Becca and I biked from our apartment on the western edge of the old city to the Jardines Murillo, the northeastern edge. We made our way to Modesto, a casual seafood-focused restaurant so big and popular, it took up two separate plazas and two separate indoor spaces facing each other. We got a platter of pimentos de padron to share, while she ordered the famed pescaito frito and I got the cazón frito en adobo.

The pimientos de padrón were on my to-do list because of an essay by Calvin Trillin in his book, “Feeding a Yen.” (Others say, “I did Madrid,” or “I did Granada,” but I say, “I did pimientos de padrón.”) According to Calvin Trillin, they come from Galicia, the state on the northwestern tip of Spain. They are local only to Galicia and are extremely hard to find outside of Galicia, as their season is also very short. In fact, I don’t even know for sure that our pimientos de padrón were the real thing. But I do know for sure that they were very good.

They turned out to be thin-skinned little green peppers, fried and then liberally salted with sea salt. It was like eating potato chips but better. They were the only green peppers I have ever really loved. Every once in awhile, and you have no idea when, you may encounter a spicy one, but they’re otherwise mild and easily lovable. Becca loved them so much, we came back our last day in Sevilla and ordered one platter and then another. They went excellently with Cruzcampo, the light and tasty local beer.

The fried cazón turned out to be chunks of tender dogfish tossed or marinated in some sort of spice that made it pleasantly salty and almost tart. We enjoyed this very much, too.

The famed pescaito, however, was not so universally loved. It was another dish that I ate most of, even though Becca had ordered it. There was quite an assortment of fish, from fried anchovies to small red, curled-up fish (had they died that way?), even a bit of fried fish roe. I popped the fried anchovies like they were popcorn and was thankful for my good appetite.

When we came back almost a week later and ate our two plates of pimientos, we also shared a plate of coquinas, these skinny little clams barely bigger than the tip of your thumb. They’d been cooked in lots of olive oil and salt, and I loved them, too.

I hope New York gets a public bike system soon. Mayor Bloomberg, do you hear me? We already have the river, if not the attitude. Would it be too much to also hope for a place that sells pimentos de padron, fried fish, and coquinas, and maybe an extra plaza or two?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Arriving in Sevilla

(Now I am really behind--I'm in chilly Salamanca, having left sunny Andalucía behind, but just starting to blog about Sevilla.)

Arriving in Sevilla was a joy. My flight left Barcelona before dawn, but when I arrived in Sevilla at 9:30 a.m., it was sunny and just starting to get warm. The apartment Becca and I rented was in the barrio of Macarena, a formerly working class neighborhood on the western edge of the old city that is being colonized by hipsters, complete with hipster dads pushing strollers through the nearby park, Alameda de Hercules. I had found it online at Embrujo de Sevilla, and it went beyond all expectations, with its soaring ceilings, sparkling clean, bright IKEA furniture, a dishwasher and washing machine, AND a roof terrace. It was nicer than my own apartment.

In many ways, Sevilla reminded me of Mexico, and Becca agreed, it was the most Latin American of the Spanish cities she’s been to. The buildings were low and brightly painted, and you knew there were sunny courtyards in nearly every one. Even the machismo was the same; after two weeks of walking unnoticed, I started getting catcalls and kissy noises again. People spoke even more quickly than they had in Madrid, and they swallowed the ends of their words like Caribbeans, but they smiled more easily than their compatriots in Madrid and I felt happy again that I could speak Spanish, más o menos.

And being outside Spain’s biggest cities, I began to see and enjoy the little mistranslations I saw everywhere. Growing up in Korea, we’d always gotten a big kick out of the way Korean words were translated into English, and it was strangely gratifying to see the Spanish were as bad as the Koreans. The best, or the worst, was definitely at Taberna del Alabardero, a restaurant in Sevilla, where at the end of our meal, we were presented with an evaluation form, including a place to rate the “saw-off” we got.

But the meal itself was one of the loveliest Becca and I had in Andalucía. It looked like a favorite of moneyed Sevillians, judging by the way the other guests were dressed, but the happy waitress was warm without formality, as the restaurant itself is. When you walk in, you see a classic Sevillian space, a light and airy courtyard brightened even more by its yellow paint. The dining rooms are off the courtyard and have beautiful Moorish tiles to look at while you eat.

The food was also classically Spanish, simple, a bit too salty, and very flavorful. I loved my appetizer of “maccarones con salsa de tinta y calamares,” the pasta and squid so perfectly toothsome.

Becca also loved her “crema de puerro con salteado de verduras y langostinos,” a creamy leek soup with deeply caramelized vegetables and shrimp.

Our favorite, though, was the "merluza en salsa verde," or hake in a herby green sauce, served with a poached egg. The fish was obviously fresh, the sauce very bright and it managed to be delicious in and of itself, without needing to resort to heavy flavors.

Becca didn’t like her “chuleta de cerdo con col y melocoton,” or pork with caramelized cabbage and a peach sauce but I loved it. We realized Becca doesn’t really like the texture of most Spanish meat, but I liked the way it was both flavorful and chewy without being dry, and I loved the peach sauce which was more tart than sweet.

We couldn’t miss dessert—the whole three-course meal only cost 12,90 Euros! I also learned that Becca doesn’t like soft desserts, other than whipped cream, as she wasn’t too fond of the “flan de naranja con magdalena tibia y salsa de menta,” or orange flan with madeleines and mint sauce, or the chocolate mousse cake that was the special of the day. It was a happy realization for me, since I got to eat almost all of both desserts.

But as always, the best meals aren’t only about the food. Our young waitress, more blonde than you would ever expect a Spaniard to be, was so happy and kind. She spoke fairly good English and only laughed when we started to confuse her by speaking English and Spanish simultaneously. When she saw me looking at the little bottles of olive oil on the table, she brought me 4 more to take home, which went immediately clinking into my bag. (I ended up leaving 3 in the apartment for future tenants, but took one in case I saw a good tomato on the road.) There was no question, we rated the “saw-off” as excellent.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tripe and preguntas

I finally got a Spaniard to ask me where I was from, while eating breakfast solo at El Quim in La Boqueria, my last full day in Barcelona.

In Mexico, I got asked 5 times a day where I was from, from the cabdriver to the waitress to the guy working in the cemetery who insisted that I see where Benito Juarez’s daughter was buried and then shyly showed me photos of him riding a bull attached to his keychain. Almost always, the question was asked with curiosity, warmth and kindness. But in Spain, in the 3 weeks I have been here, I have been asked that question once.

El Quim belongs a Spanish food genre that doesn’t exist in the U.S., not quite a restaurant, more of a counter, but not like a diner, as it may very well serve wine, beer, and sparkling Spanish cava, not to mention razor clams, calamari, and jamon iberico. El Quim, even within this marvelous class, is near the very top. It’s a wonder just to watch the owner and his assistants move with sureness and speed in the little space that serves as their kitchen behind the counter. El Quim is one of the young upstarts that have started to challenge the legend of Pinotxo at La Boqueria, and I say, “The more the merrier!”

Although El Quim does list a menu on a board behind the counter, it’s not actually comprehensible. There are clearly things displayed in the glass case on the counter that are not on the board, and I did what I have learned to do brazenly, gawk at what others are eating. I even made a full circuit around the U-shaped bar, dismissing the tortilla espanola as old hat, dismissing eggs as too typically American for breakfast. Finally, on my second turn around the stall, I noticed a man at one end eating a round, flat earthenware dish of a red, chunky stew.

“Cual es?” I asked. I don’t know why I bothered, as I didn’t understand the response, “Callos,” but it looked very much like tripe, one of my favorite things to eat. THAT would not be a typically American breakfast for sure. So I sat down next to him and ordered the same.

My God, it was so good! The tripe was wonderful, so tender and yet still springy. There were chunks of sausage and plenty of tomato sauce that I sopped up with pieces of good crusty bread. The nice guy behind the counter had filled my plate almost to overflowing, but I couldn’t stop eating. It may go down in memory as one of the best breakfasts I have ever had, if not one of the best meals.

As I ate in gusto, I could tell the man next to me was glancing at me from time to time. I recognized the question emanating from him: who was this Asian woman who spoke Spanish with an American accent, who thought nothing of eating tripe for breakfast? In Mexico, he would have asked the question immediately, but it stalled for awhile. But in the end, he had to ask.

I had done it, me and my stomach. I had finally made someone in Spain ask, "De donde eres?"

Cook and Taste in Barcelona

I had been a little apprehensive about what the cooking class might be like at Cook and Taste in Barcelona. It was listed in my Lonely Planet, and a poster on Chowhound had recommended it, but I had been afraid that it was a school targeted to tourists wanting to swill sangria and that it would inevitably avoid “scary” ingredients. When I saw the menu, I wasn’t really reassured: tortilla espanola (the eponymous potato omelet), paella (the eponymous rice dish), sopa de tomates (suspiciously like the eponymous gazpacho), and crema catalana (suspiciously like flan). I wanted to learn how to make food that was essentially Spanish, but also to learn more about Spanish food than I could in New York.

But as I’ve learned so often on my travels, my pessimism was greatly misplaced. Bego, our teacher, was instantly likable, a somewhat serious woman with a quiet but sharp sense of humor. She had been an engineer for years and had started the cooking school as a major career change, but she kept her kitchen clean and her knives sharp like any professionally trained chef. And there was cuttlefish in the paella, bought fresh from La Boqueria that morning.

The class wasn’t big, three middle-aged women traveling through Italy and Spain together from Los Angeles, me and Anne, one young guy who was clearly a foodie from Australia, and then one motorcycle instructor from England, who it turned out never cooked but had been sent there as part of a tour package. We cooked through the recipes together, two volunteers at a time joining Bego, but all of us watching on, which was a nice change from the team-approach at other cooking schools I’ve been to.

What I loved best was definitely the sopa, the cold soup that she served in little glasses, with a pungent garnish of garlic aioli, hazelnuts, and a hard grated cheese. The tomatoes were almost raw, having only been blanched in boiling water to remove their skins, but sweet and red. It was as beautiful as it was good.

Tortilla espanola, I have never particularly cared for, since potatoes are not my favorite vegetable. Bego revealed that the question of whether onion should be added to the potatoes cooked in oil was a controversial question in Spain, one that could even divide families. When I asked Isaac, Mao-Mei’s husband about it, he said, “Huh, that’s funny. I never eat tortilla without onion,” proving her point. But this tortilla, so expertly flipped by Anne, did have a lovely golden crust, and although I still will order almost anything else at a tapas bar, I can see how it’s the kind of everyday food that I love, simple, cheap, filling, and tasty.

The other controversy in Spanish cooking is apparently whether lemon should be squeezed on paella or not. Bego warned us, if we’re invited to a Spanish home and served paella without lemon, not to ask for it. Anne and I had avoided paella up to that point, since it’s the kind of thing that tends to get advertised by garish backlit photographs at tourist restaurants, and we both loved what the lemon juice added to the prawns and the cuttlefish, the tomatoes, and almost al dente rice. I loved how the grains felt in my mouth, as if each grain had its own integrity.

Crema catalana, in the end, turned out to be a Catalan version of crème brulee, complete with blowtorching of the sugar on top. I liked it, as I like almost all custards, but I think you can imagine what it was like without much more description.

I had to admit, what was typical was still real and still good. I left New York to be humbled, to stop being so sure of what I like and what I don’t. It’s happening.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Razor clam heaven

Even before I had ever tasted them, I knew I would love razor clams. I loved the way they looked at Maceiras in Madrid, at the table next to us, I loved the way they looked in the markets with their long, slim shells and the clam body sticking out at the end like a tongue. I just didn’t know how much I would love them until I finally tried them at Alta Taberna Paco Meralgo in Barcelona.

Paco Meralgo is a spruced-up tapas bar in the L’Eixample neighborhood with no tables, but blond wood counters running all around and through the restaurant and plenty of bar stools. It’s quick and it’s busy, bustling with good food and happy people. Anne and I were overwhelmed by the Catalan menu, and frankly, by the Castilian menu as well, but our waiter kindly made a few recommendations to fill out our dinner beyond razor clams.

We loved the three kinds of setas or wild mushrooms, liberally drizzled with olive oil, especially an inky-black one that looked as crinkled as seaweed. Based on the signs we read in La Boqueria, we think they were “trompetas de la mort.” We enjoyed more croquetas and the crunchy, thin tortillitas de camarones, studded with tiny bits of shrimp.

But the first bite I had of my razor clam was like heaven. It tasted salty like the sea, with so much chewy flavor and none of the bitter graininess that you sometimes find in clams. It was seriously succulent. It was possibly one of the top ten most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

I liked it so much that I licked my razor clamshell from one end to the other, to get all the juice. When Anne saw what I was doing, she offered me her second razor clam, saying that I was enjoying it so much more than she was. Normally, I would be polite and refuse but I couldn’t. I ate three, she ate one.

I really love Anne, I really do.

Reserving a donut at La Boqueria

(I’m now in Ronda with Becca, having spent the last week traveling through Andalucia, so I’m playing major catch-up. Lo siento!)

I liked Barcelona so much more than Madrid. Largely, it’s because in Catalonia, Anne and I stayed for a chunk of time with our friend Mao-Mei and her husband Isaac in Vilafranca, a small town outside of Barcelona in the heart of cava, or sparkling wine, country. And partly, it’s because I had massive culture shock coming to Spain from Mexico. After Mexico, I expected salespeople to greet me like I was a long-lost cousin, waiters to smile with approval at what I ordered, and everyone to be complimentary about my Spanish. It turns out that’s just a Latin American thing. In Madrid, until we met up with a friend of a friend who lives in Madrid, Anne and I lived in a little tourist bubble, moving silently among the madrilenos.

But being who I am, one of the big reasons I loved Barcelona was the food. Despite our morning adventures, breakfast was not Madrid’s strong suit, whereas in Barcelona, I had some of the most memorable breakfasts of my life at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famed market.

Our first morning in Barcelona, Anne and I went straight to Pinotxo, the most famous bar/food stand in La Boqueria, which is immediately visible the moment you walk in the Ramblas gate. Juan, the owner, has been greeting locals and tourists for many years. There’s no menu, so I tried to hold off ordering for as long as possible, to see what everyone else was eating.

We got a big plate of chickpeas in a strong, olive sauce; some ham croquetas that melted away, and two little glasses of café con leche. But we were still hungry. “Could I have one of those donuts over there?” I asked.

“No, they’re not available,” the counterman said. “They’ve been reserved.”

Reserved! We inquired about their name, xuxo, pronounced “chu-cho,” Anne and I looked at each other. The solution was obvious. “Please, could we reserve donuts for tomorrow?”


“Yes, two!”

“Okay, I’ll remember!”

The next day, there they were, waiting for us on top of the espresso maker. (TIP: if you get there early enough, around 9:15, there will be some unreserved donuts left, but you’ll have to move fast.) Anne and I hadn’t even really known what they were when we reserved them, knowing only that they were beautifully brown and dusted with a good quantity of granulated sugar. So imagine our surprise when we bit into them and found a lovely, light cream inside. The outer layers were as flaky and crisp as a good croissant. It was like someone had taken the idea of a Boston cream donut and made it 1000 times better. Later, when we talked to Bego, our cooking teacher about them, she nodded knowingly and said, “Yes, Pinotxo is the place to eat xuxos. You’ll see them elsewhere, but they’re not the same.”

Would it be wrong to name a child, “Xuxo”? Perhaps a dog would be better.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Coveting my neighbor's food

My mother loves to look at what other people are eating. We all think the grass is greener on the other side but my mom takes it to a whole new level. When our dog was still alive, she would take him for walks and brazenly look in the windows of restaurants in our Sucho-dong neighborhood in Seoul. Sometimes, she would even hold him up to the window so he, too, could see what people were eating. Who knows what the diners thought, seeing a middle-aged woman and a Yorkshire terrier watching them eat, but she didn’t care.

Weird tics diminish with each generation, so when I was in Madrid, eating with Anne at Maceiras at Calle Huertas, 66, I didn’t have the courage to stare full-on at the three boys eating at the table next to us. But I wanted to. Maceiras is a Galician tapas bar, Galicia being the region in the northwest corner of Spain, renowned for its seafood, and these boys were taking full advantage. Being on Huertas, a street known for its bars, Maceiras had an English menu (and a French one, and a German one), but Anne and I still had trouble picking our food. Our neighbors, on the other hand, had obviously hearty appetites and they ate wave after wave of food: a big bowl of razor clams, 2 plates of steak and French fries, and so many other things I couldn’t quite identify and so could only gaze upon with wonder.

Our meal itself was very good, but I think we could have benefited from their sure-footed expertise. It turns out an empanada in Galicia is neither a flaky turnover or a maiz tortilla filled with mole amarillo, but a bready, almost casserole-like dish in which some filling of fish or meat can be found in the middle. Hearty and I’m sure satisfying for a hungry Galician peasant, but not revelatory. Similarly, Anne and I felt just okay about the croquetas. There was nothing wrong with them, they weren’t greasy, but I think they must be like French fries here for Spaniards, standard and beloved and so they are on every menu.

The pulpo, or octopus, however, was excellent, meaty and succulent.

The mushrooms sautéed with jamon were also very good, though probably not as nutritious as we told ourselves they were, being one of the few vegetable dishes we ate in Madrid.

The restaurant was bustling, with plenty of tourists looking for good cheap food, but plenty of locals, too. It was busy but warm, and I loved its rough-hewn tables and even the amateur, unstylized bird on their bright green sign. I also loved how the wine was served in small white bowls; I just love drinking things in bowls. Must be my Asian blood.

Perhaps if I were as brazen as my mother, I could have asked those boys what they were eating or even asked for a taste, but sadly, I am not.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Breakfast in Madrid

It’s funny what you realize about your country only once you leave it. Americans, and I include myself, really like to see a list of available items and their prices. It’s important to know how much your coffee costs and that it comes in small, medium, and large. Perhaps it’s because we’re a very diverse country, and you can never really know what you’ll find, or perhaps it’s because we know we can be gouged.

In Spain, however, things are different. In Madrid, in particular, with its old-school, bocadillo bars and little corner cafes, it was hard to find anything announcing what you could get.

So imagine poor Anne and me arriving early in the morning into Madrid, changing trains twice to get from the airport to the hotel by subway, and then looking for breakfast, bleary-eyed. I can barely remember that the café was called Chocolate, and that there was a long bar with middle-aged men eating pastries and drinking coffee and a few café tables. There was a menu on the table, but it seemed to list only fruity, expensive juices, nothing about the coffee everyone was clearly drinking, nor the churros everyone was eating. No one else seemed perturbed; clearly, they all knew what was available. I tried to ask in my Mexican-accented Spanish what was available, and the most we could understand was that there were churros and tostada, or toast. Okay then, some churros and tostada! We were also offered brightly wrapped candies or chocolate, and we had no idea what they were or what they cost or perhaps they were free, who knows?

But we did get better at navigating breakfast. We managed to locate places in small alleys, which is no small feat as the old part of Madrid is 90% small alleys, and we lost the fear that we would be charged something exorbitant and unexpected because we never were. Anne found a strong endorsement for Chocolateria San Gines near Puerta del Sol, and by then, we had learned enough to know that churros were skinny and sugarless and that something called purros or parros were a fatter version, similar to the crullers Chinese people like to eat for breakfast with their congee. It was a good thing Anne had done this research because here, also, there was no menu. That didn’t detour us, though, and we boldly ordered one of both, cost be damned, and happily dipped them into the thickest hot chocolate I have ever had in my life. It almost sat in my spoon like pudding. I almost didn't miss my morning coffee, the chocolate was so intense. So this is why the churros weren’t dusted with sugar! And our breakfast, as always, cost less than expected.

Our triumph was complete when we ate croissants at Antigua Pasteleria on Calle Pozo, a tiny little one-block street near Puerta del Sol. We had walked by one morning too early, as it didn’t open till 9:30 a.m., but we had seen through the screen doors the happy fat bakers at work. When they saw us peering in, they smiled, “Buenos dias,” and we promised each other we could come back the next day.

The croissants were unlike any croissants I’d ever had. In my former, snootier life, I might not have ordered them, as I used to be very orthodox about my croissants. They were glazed with an orange-scented marmalade and they pulled apart like sweet challah, but even eggier. There was nothing flaky about them, nothing that shattered, nothing that meant my old criteria for an excellent croissant, but I really enjoyed mine. The bakery didn’t sell coffee, so Anne and I wandered towards Puerta del Sol until we found a standard Au Bon Pain-type eatery, which being in Spain, made all its coffee using espresso machines. We found a quiet corner upstairs, with a big window looking out towards Puerta del Sol and ate our croissants and drank our cafes con leche. I don’t know how Anne felt, but I felt proud, like I had come a long way.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Spanish haute cuisine, foam and all

Anne is one of the best people you could ever travel with. I know that I can be judgmental, opinionated, and incredibly annoying, especially when it comes to food, but Anne was gracious and kind the entire time we were traveling together in Madrid and Barcelona. Even when I took her to an over-the-top fancy and expensive restaurant in Madrid, where we awkwardly sat surrounded by ladies who lunch and businessmen in suits, she only laughed. In the end, I think we had more fun than anyone else in that restaurant.

I had picked Zaranda because the Maribel Guides said they offered a fantastic 20-28 Euro prix-fixe lunch. Sadly, it was no longer true and we sat there for at least five minutes, wondering if we should just scurry away, poor American mice that we are. I felt so disoriented, and although the very energetic waiter spoke English, his translation of the menu was so rushed. He kept asking us what we wanted, and when Anne finally chose a baby squid appetizer, I said to her, “I didn’t know you liked squid!”, to which she replied, “I didn't know what it was, I just had to make him stop!”

Also sadly, Zaranda seemed to be a restaurant where most people don’t eat all their food. To me, that’s the only explanation for why the waitstaff kept whisking things away before we were done. So although Anne loved the little sesame cracker in the hors d’oeuvres tray, I never got to have any.

It’s not that the food wasn’t good. The amuse-bouche, a monkfish liver, was sharply salty and delicious, meeting that craving that potato chips meet in a much more downmarket way. And it seemed right that at least at some point in Spain, I should eat something with foam on it.

The chipirone, or the young squid, was also very good, perfectly tender and succulent.

Anne’s young female chicken seemed very bland to me, but I enjoyed my solomillo, or beef filet, with a potato stuffed with menudillos. The waiter translated “menudillos” as kidneys, my dictionary says giblets, and I’m inclined to go with the waiter as I’ve never heard of a cow with giblets. It’s hard with fancy restaurants that like to use words in fanciful ways. I sat there just staring at the menu, feeling like I had learned nothing in four months in Mexico. In any case, it was tender and tasty, though I’m the kind of girl that likes my beef to have some chew to it. I was more excited to be eating menudillos, which had a strong but not unpleasant taste.

The best part, though, was when it came to dessert. When we ordered the toffee molten cake, we were told that it would take some extra time and were fed complimentary little cups of a light, white custard with passionfruit jelly on top. This was delicious and I loved it.

The toffee cake wasn’t bad either, and we finished that, too. But then, as we began to relax and think about how this whole disorienting experience might soon be over, the waiter came over with a platter of little cookies, the petit-fours, saying as he presented them, “Normally, I bring these over with the coffee, and I didn’t know what to do since you didn’t order any coffee, but I thought I’d bring them anyway.” He meant well, but I guffawed when Anne whispered, “He didn’t know what to do with people as cheap as us, but here are the cookies anyway!”

I almost died laughing when Anne followed up with, “I bet we’re the only people in this restaurant who would even consider staying at the Hostal Lopez.” She thought it even funnier that after our meal, we finished the day by touring the stadium Santiago Bernabeu, the home of the Real Madrid futbol team, where she took a particularly memorable photo of me clutching my heart in front of a larger-than-life photo of Zinedine Zidane.

I don’t mean to be criticizing Zaranda, which I’m sure provides a delectable experience for those who are fortunate enough to enjoy it without a thought for their pocketbooks. I’m just happy that Anne and I will have memories of Zaranda that go way, way beyond the food.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Roast suckling pig in Segovia

By the time we got to Segovia, our fourth full day in Spain, Anne and I were full of culture, and not in a happy way. Our first day, we arrived in Madrid at 7 a.m. (1 a.m. NY-time), felt a rush of energy from the thrill of being in Spain, and marched out at 9:30 a.m. to see the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace. We kept this up somehow for a couple of days, seeing museums and palaces and cathedrals, and by the third evening, when we had gotten home from a day-trip to Toledo, I said to Anne wanly from my bed, “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll sit in a café while you look at the Alcázar in Segovia tomorrow.”

But as we sat on the bus to Segovia, my spirits lifted as I read about Segovia’s specialty—roast suckling pig, or cochinillo. Segovia itself was beautiful, sunny and inviting, in a way that Toledo with its dark, cramped alleys just hadn’t been. I was moved by the 2000-year-old Roman aqueducts, and even enjoyed the Moorish Alcázar, with its Sleeping Beauty turrets and large picture windows, revealing views of rivers, minor castles, and enormous sky. And when it was time to eat lunch, I realized just how much I liked Segovia.

We chose Narizotas, more for its sunny patio than anything else, and ordered the “menu del dia turistico,” which includes a soup of judiones, or white beans, cochinillo, ice cream for dessert, and the glass of wine that is so obligatory, it’s almost always included in the prix-fixe lunches. We also added a plate of jamón ibérico, our first taste of Spain’s famed ham.

The jamón was as delicious as it looked, and we congratulated ourselves for eating vegetables, the ripe tomatoes and herby green sauce, sharp with mustard, that came with the jamón. It’s good that Anne is a doctor, as she was able to reassure me that despite the serious lack of vegetables in my life here, I would not get scurvy in 7 weeks.

The soup of judiones beans was simple, lots of tomatoes and chunks of meat. Good, but not exciting, and to be quite honest, I had a little bit of trouble eating meat that still seemed to have some hair stuck to it.

But the cochinillo was everything I had dreamed it would be. Cochinillo is always made from a 21-day-old piglet that has eaten nothing but its mother’s milk. I don’t know any more because I didn’t have time to do sufficient research on Spanish food before leaving, but luckily, I didn’t need to know more to eat with gusto. The skin didn’t merely crackle, it shattered, and the meat was incredibly tender, melting in its own fat.

We sat in the sun, drinking wine and sparkling water, eating roast pig and watching Segovia locals and tourists walk by. It’s what you imagine life in Spain to be like, no?