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travel, food, and fun

Machu Picchu is South America’s top tourist destination and Cusco is the gateway to the once-lost city. Coming from Lima it was great to see blue skies once again and the Spanish colonial architecture was stunning.

Located in the heart of the historical district, the Plaza de Armas is the epicenter of tourism in Cusco. There you will find the usual mix of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and travel agencies.

A short walk from the Plaza is San Pedro Market, which has a wide variety of produce, meat, and food stalls. I had most of my meals there. They were inexpensive, but nothing I’d go out of my way to eat again. I did manage to buy a bunch of Peruvian foodstuffs to bring home, including several types of corn, quinoa, and aji amarillo.

Overall, the food in Cusco was a disappointment. The tourist traps surrounding the Plaza de Armas serve an overpriced, horribly executed mix of international and Peruvian food. Since I was there, I had to try cuy (guinea pig). I went to Chez Maggy, which has two locations in the center and a Trip Advisor excellence sticker on the window. The service was horrible, the food worse, and the guinea pig nearly inedible.

Cuy was not what lured me to Cusco. I had hopes of taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but, during high season, that requires booking 6-9 months in advance. Not having that luxury, I settled for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, which was truly wonderful.

There is no shortage of massage parlors in Cusco and masseuses actively solicit business in the street. Prices range from $7 for a basic massage to $15 for the Inca Special. I splurged on the Inca following my trek and, while it wasn’t Thailand, had a very nice (strictly platonic) rubdown.

The day after my trek, I took the 45 minute bus ride to Pisaq, which, in addition to Inca ruins, holds a popular market on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The Sunday market featured an array of handicrafts and fresh produce. I purchased handicrafts and more foodstuffs to bring home, and had a gigantic and extremely tasty fried trout while in Pisaq.

Cusco is a beautiful city and I was extremely satisfied with my trek. I had originally intended to stick around longer and use Cusco as the starting point for another trek and to visit Lake Titicaca. The sheer volume of tourists and the impersonal, predatory atmosphere generated by it led me to seek greener pastures. I booked a flight for Colombia and decided to try my hand in a place less on the radar.

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Lima is the point of entry for visitors flying into Peru, and many continue on to their ultimate destination without spending much time in the capital city. The City of Kings has seen a recent bump in popularity, largely due to its culinary prowess, and that was enough for me to stay a couple days.

Gaston Acurio is a big reason why people now view Lima as a destination, even if an intermediate one. Ceviche is Peru’s most famous fare and Acurio’s flagship La Mar Cebicheria is regarded as a temple to citrus-cooked fish. Not counting the tasty 1 a.m. chicharone sandwich at La Lucha immediately following my arrival, my first meal in Lima was at La Mar.

From the potato chips with 3 different sauces and corn nuts still warm from the oven to the cebiche mixto, every bite I had at La Mar was transcendent. People claim that it’s overrated or overpriced, but, for me, La Mar more than lived up to the hype.

Just across the street from La Mar is the place for anticuchos: Grimanesa Vargas Anticuchos. I was surprised by the relative low cost and speed of service considering the acclaim. The skewers of beef heart were tender and flavorful, and came with potatoes and hot sauce.

My other meals were hit-and-miss, but I did have a great arroz con mariscos with ceviche and chicha for about $4 after visiting the Larco Museum. I fondly refer to the Larco as the “Erotic Pottery Museum.” It’s famous ancient erotica, but the extensive collection of Peruvian artifacts was worth a visit in its own right.

Like most visitors, I stayed in Miraflores. There are a number of hostels with dorm rooms available for around $15/night. It’s safe, clean, and nearly all of the places I visited were within walking distance. The Miraflores coastline is adorned with beautiful parks that, even in winter, were filled with people and their pets. Coming from Oahu, it was a treat to look down and see Waikiki Beach and Makaha Beach.

Championed by Acurio, the Surquillo Market is also in close proximity to Miraflores. Lima’s premier farmers’ market did not disappoint either. Despite being off-season, the variety was great and the prices were just as good. I went back again to grab more of the exotic fruit.

Transportation is convenient, but slightly complex if you don’t speak Spanish. Lima has an excellent bicycling infrastructure, public buses and mini-buses can cheaply take you anywhere you want to go, and taxis are inexpensive, with the usual exceptions of the airport and heavily touristic areas.

It being winter, the weather was perpetually overcast and on the chilly side, but still manageable. Lima was a good place to spend a couple days eating and wandering, and I would do the same if I visit Peru again.

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On April 16, the Center for Food Safety opened up shop in Honolulu with the goal of passing a law requiring GMO labeling. The last couple years have seen a healthy conversation on GMO labeling, especially here in Hawaii. The issue has been a lightning rod, polarizing the community and gaining national attention. It’s a discussion that continues to unfold.

Lorena Farrell, Executive Director of the Big Island Farm Bureau, registered the Hawaii Center for Food Safety as a nonprofit organization with the Hawaii Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs on April 3 and purchased the domains hawaiicenterforfoodsafety.org and .com on April 16.

The official Facebook page of the “Hawaii Center for Food Safety” makes it clear that they are not in any way associated with the Center for Food Safety. Under the technical banner of the loudest voice in opposition to GMOs, the page management shares links from biotech corporations.

Amid immediate outcry, including from the Center for Food Safety’s Hawaii office Executive Director Ashley Lukens, I wanted to help ensure that people engaging with the “Hawaii Center for Food Safety” know who is behind the branding.

Registered as the Hawaii Center for Food Safety (who magically appeared as the Center for Food Safety came to Hawaii and randomly picked the same name), Lorena Farrell is disseminating information counter to the Center for Food Safety’s mission. I shared two links to the official Hawaii Center for Food Safety Facebook page, one for the DCCA registration and one for the websites. I also posted the links as comments on the few other posts on the site, which was “liked” by under 30 people at the time.

Every interaction I had on the Hawaii Center for Food Safety Facebook page was deleted by its page management and I’ve been blocked from posting further.

People I admire and respect stand on both sides of the issue. It strikes me as odd for people that get along so well otherwise to have relationship-altering differences over something of this magnitude; we are talking about adding language to a label. The public deserves a transparent, legitimate discussion to arrive at a fair and scientific conclusion.   

Food trucks have taken off nationally over the last few years, but Portland is truly in a league of its own. Options range from your run of the mill Korean, Mexican and Thai to the more exotic Iraqi, Georgian (the republic, not the state), Mauritian, and Transylvanian. Due to time constraints, I was only able to scratch the surface of Portland’s dynamic food truck scene. I had to prioritize.

With the number one overall pick in the food cart draft, I went with Delicios Taste of Transylvania. As someone who appreciates food in all of its forms and is always seeking out the obscure, this was a no-brainer. I knew absolutely nothing about Transylvanian food and called a chef friend who happens to hail from Dracula’s hood. I ended up giving the phone to the friendly lady who does the cooking and they went back and forth in their native tongue. When she returned the phone to me, my buddy Nikk said “they seem legit.” He was right.

Romania’s #1 dish, a skinless sausage called mici (pronounced) was moist, flavorful and everything you could ask for in a reformed hunk of meat. Nikk told me to have the chimney cake and, although I’m not generally a fan of sweets, I followed my friend’s advice. It was perfection. The cake was light, tasty, with a nice caramelization on the outside that results from the unique device it’s baked in (there are only 3 of them in the country).

As often is the case, the people behind the food were just as good as what they were serving. The mother and son team who immigrated from Romania 14 years ago were incredibly nice, gracious, and really, really cool. I couldn’t have asked for more in a food truck experience.

My vegan girlfriend (I know, what are the chances?) and I ventured over to Chez Dodo, a Mauritian food truck that caters to people who avoid animal products as well as unabashed omnivores like me. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from Mauritius in the past and had my suspicions…. Shyam, the chef at Chez Dodo, further supported my theory that people from Mauritius may well be the nicest on the planet. Fortunately for us, he had just returned from his motherland and brought back wonderfully delicious organic spices.

We started with taro fritters, which were balls of riced taro battered in tapioca flour and spices then deep fried. These vegan delights were served with a red and a green sauce and were absolutely scrumptious. We each ordered a spicy curry noodle dish and I had lamb in mine. The portions were huge and the flavors were like nothing I’ve ever had. It was spicy, complex and delicious. When you combine African, Creole, Chinese, Indian and French cuisine, wonderful things happen.

During our brief stay in Portland, we visited a couple other food stands and they were all great. I’m looking forward to going back and seeing what the next trip holds in terms of exotic deliciousness.

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Despite what this blog may lead you to believe, I have a day job.  Since getting back to Hawaii in January, I have been working a normal M-F (usually) 8-5ish gig – followed by a 5 a.m. wakeup each Saturday to help with a venture at our most popular farmers’ market.  I did the same before this trip and the one before it, and also get to play food with my friends when they pop up – and absolutely love it.

Even if I didn’t have the privilege of being a very small part of something so amazing, today’s long-awaited opening of the brick and mortar would have been a huge deal to me.  The story behind the Pig and the Lady could have been taken from a Hollywood script and the food is innovative, brilliant and delicious.

They have received significant recognition and acclaim, most recently #1 in HONOLULU Magazine’s 100 Best Dishes and the Hale Aina Gold Award for Best Vietnamese Restaurant, before having a physical location.  Despite all of this, what makes PTL special are the people behind it.

Work hard, play hard has never been better exemplified.  The Le family (and their team) work their asses off.  I could not continue to function on what little sleep they get, and have been getting for years now.  The lack of sleep may contribute to them being hilarious as individuals, and especially together, but it is not the only reason.  For all of the early mornings and late nights of grueling work, they are fun, happy, light-hearted, and truly love what they do.

Today’s soft opening of their restaurant was both a celebration and a culmination of all of the above: the story, the food and the people behind both.  The restaurant itself, located in walking distance from my day job at 83 N. King St. in Honolulu’s Chinatown, has the best-designed interior I have seen in the state.  It feels like you’re walking into a restaurant in San Francisco, Seattle or somewhere else where people value the aesthetics of a restaurant as much as the food itself.  The front of the house and kitchen had faces both familiar and new to me, and those that I know are among the best in the industry.

The food was, as always, phenomenal.  There were some new dishes and some I had enjoyed before and everything was on point and perfectly executed.  The cocktails were on par with the food and the beer list extremely impressive.

A number of friends, family, industry people and lovers of food were at the invite-only event and it was a big lovefest.  I’m grateful to have been among those lucky enough to attend and am looking forward to many great meals to come.

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I had been away during Hawaii Food & Wine for the past couple years and was looking forward to being able to join in on the fun this year. Food & Wine brings some of the top chefs from across the country to Oahu for a week of fun. Due to work, I wasn’t able to fully participate, but it was definitely a week to remember.

Most Saturdays I wake up early and help with The Pig & The Lady at the KCC Farmers’ Market. On the Saturday of Food & Wine, my favorite chef from the Continental US, Chris Cosentino came for breakfast with his family. It was a real treat to serve food I believe in to Offal Chris and they enjoyed their meal.

That night, I attended the “Taste Our Love for the Land” event at the Hawaii Convention Center. There were 19 brilliant chefs cooking up their best and you could revisit their stations as much as you wanted. The huge assortment of wine, craft cocktails, and beer helped wash down each tasty bite.

The chefs took a variety of approaches and it was a treat to see such talented minds going for it! I didn’t get to taste everything, but there were a couple stations I paid a few visits. My top three were: Mark Noguchi’s Kaneohe He`e, Russell Moore’s Grilled goat-king trumpet mushroom kofte kebab, and Ed Kenney’s “Grilled Pa’i’ai and Kukui Nut Broth.”

Gooch’s tako was tender, fresh, and had perfect company courtesy of Ho Farms. Goat was a popular protein and Hawaii’s own Sheldon Simeon laid down a mean kilawen. Russell Moore’s goat kebab was really, really good. In a world of tako, goat, and uni, Town’s Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero served up a true taste of their love for the land. Pa’i’ai is hand-pounded taro, which was the first staple crop of Hawaii, and I don’t think there is a more signature ingredient in Hawaiian cuisine. The dish was earthy, delicious, and told a story.

As good as the food (and drink) was, the company equalled it; there were chefs, farmers, and food enthusiasts from across the globe and many key players in Hawaii’s food future. It was a well-lubricated, four-hour foodgasm in a beautiful setting with tons of great people.

While I only managed to get a taste of Hawaii Food & Wine, it was one of the best bites I’ve ever had. Hawaii is a great place to be.

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Most of the time I visit places it’s not with a particular goal in mind, but occasionally I go somewhere seeking a specific experience. When I first went to Southeast Asia, I sought out an epic elephant trek through the jungle and found what I was looking for in Mondulkiri. For Rajasthan it was a desert camel safari. Tucked into the heart of the Thar Desert near the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer has emerged as a popular destination for people seeking such a trip.

A small, charming city built on sandstone that was once a fort, “The Golden City” of Jaisalmer is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to shops selling camel leather goods and textiles, there are a number of companies aggressively soliciting travelers for a desert trek. Through a tepid recommendation from an excellent host in Jaipur, I ended up with one of the less scrupulous agents. My companion and I were able to negotiate the price down from highway robbery to a mere ripoff and ended up going with a 4 day 3 night desert trek.

The day before leaving town, I made sure to stop by the famous Dr. Bhang for a lassi and some cookies for the upcoming journey. A familiar face was prominently displayed on the wall, someone who had been following me throughout my journey. I didn’t see the episode of No Reservations until after I got back home, but Anthony Bourdain had also made a pit stop at the Doctor’s office before heading to the Thar.

My notion of a desert was a giant beach without the ocean, but the portions of the Thar we covered were more wasteland dotted with a few large sand dunes. It was arid, harsh, and beautiful. Despite the scumbags that ran the operation, our two guides were friendly and delivered a great desert experience.

Most meals consisted of a simple curry and fresh chapati. Everything was delicious. We stopped by a few small villages along the way where children sold beer and opium. Houses were constructed out of mud brick and had thatched roofs. A female goat was giving birth as we entered one village and I got to witness the miracle of life several times over. It was slimy.

Campfires took the chill from the star-filled desert nights. We drank whiskey and talked story with the guides as the camels ventured off into the darkness to pursue camelly matters. A year before, the same story played out in the jungle outside of Mondulkiri, with elephants filling in for the camels.

Aside from the lack of sand, the desert trek was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was definitely worth the trip to Jaisalmer and I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

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Having just 5 weeks in India, I opted to visit fewer places and spend more time in each rather than burn travel time trying to see as much of the subcontinent as possible. The area I wanted to spend the most time in was the “Land of Kings” Rajasthan. Coming from Varanasi, logistics made it most convenient to start my Rajasthani experience in the capital, Jaipur.

A ginger guy from Copenhagan was on the train with me from Varanasi and told tales of the wonderland that is Christiania. We had similar intentions for Rajasthan and joined forces for the next leg of our journeys. Resisting solicitations for lodging from “helpful” locals aboard the train, we ended up at Tony’s Guest House; it turned out to be a great home base to make the most out of Jaipur.

Tony is an older man with a big heart and hospitality at his core. The accommodations were standard for India, but the atmosphere was world class. Outside of the iconic Hawa Mahal, The Pink City isn’t teaming with things to see and do. The guest house had a hammock-equipped rooftop lounge that offered a prime view of the bustling city in the middle of nowhere, as well as free morning yoga.

Whether Hindu or Muslim, religion dominates India. Tony does not buy into the mainstream and introduced me to his spiritual leader, Baba Ji. One evening, we loaded into Tony’s van and made the trek to Baba Ji’s compound nearly an hour out of town. It was something out of a Hollywood studio. Set on a hilltop overlooking an arid wasteland, I felt as if I had arrived at a Southwest Asian tribal leader’s fiefdom; in a way, I had.

The new Lexus SUV in the driveway was a stark contrast to its bare, rugged surroundings. It was Baba Ji’s new ride and intended to lift his spirits after recent heart trouble. Apparently, Baba Ji has a penchant for smoke, drink, and unhealthy food that led to his decline in wellness. He was confined to his room and there was a host of followers who attended to him and facilitated visits. We were offered a bhang beverage while meeting the people occupying the compound in wait of our visit with their leader.

When it was my turn, I joined Tony and we were taken to Baba Ji. Lazing on his bed, Baba Ji’s gray dreadlocks reached his feet. He was a true mystic, full of the insight, wisdom, and intensity that fits a person of his role. We had a brief, positive, and cryptic exchange. It seemed like our conversation could easily have taken place in a time long ago, but when he pressed his electronic service button to summon an attendant, I remembered that the 21st century had arrived.

Following our time with their leader, we joined the rest of the men on the roof. In all there were about 20 men there, some of them stay for long stretches of time and others, like Tony, visit frequently. They were gathered in a circle around a fire talking and smoking a chillum. My traveling partner so impressed the group with his chillum hitting abilities that they presented him with one of Baba Ji’s chillums. It was quite the honor. We ate with the group and returned to Tony’s Guest House.

While staying in Jaipur we also made the day trip to Ranthambhore National Park, which is supposed to be one of the best places to see wild tigers. There were no tigers around on the day we were there, but it was worth taking the chance to see my favorite land animal in the wild and a cool wildlife refuge.

Jaipur was culturally different than the India I had seen and felt more like being in neighboring Pakistan. It was a good time and a perfect transition to Rajasthan.

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Aside from humans, tigers are my favorite land animals, and I was hoping to see one in the wild while in India. Ranthambhore National Park is supposed to provide one of the best opportunities to do just that and I made the day trip from Jaipur to try to catch a glimpse.

Ranthambhore is an easy trip from Jaipur; you can take a morning train in and an afternoon train back. I did just that and also had time to check out the small green market near the park. A morning and evening mounted safari is offered each day and ticketing was a breeze. Two vehicle options are available: a 6-passenger jeep and a 20-passenger truck. The jeeps, which are slightly more expensive, sell out quickly and the truck wasn’t bad at all.

In addition to tigers, the park is also home to a host of other exotic beasts. We saw deer, boars, crocodiles, a host of exotic birds, and a tiger print. Sadly, we were not fortunate enough to see a tiger.

The safari was still fun and, if you are a tiger lover and in the area, it’s definitely worth taking a shot at seeing one in its native habitat.

It was my first time smelling human flesh as it burned. Sorry, I always wanted to start a post that way. It really was, though, and I was surprised people were allowed to walk within 10 feet or so from the bodies as they are burned around the clock, in the place Indians go to die.

Varanasi’s history is as old as that of the subcontinent itself. It is the longest continuously inhabited place in India and one of the oldest in the world.

The sacred city’s largest draw is its continuous cremation ceremonies. Followers believe that being cremated at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat allows them to achieve moksha, where they break free from the cycle of reincarnation and go to heaven. As soon as one body is no more, another instantly takes it place and a new fire is built to free the next soul.

By the time the mighty Ganges flows to this hugely important site, it’s polluted to where its water is of no use whatsoever.  Everything from agricultural runoff to human waste renders the majestic Ganges a murky mess.  The sky-high fecal content doesn’t stop locals – and the more intrepid visitors – from bathing and washing clothes in it.  This was a stark contrast to Rishikesh, where I had just come from, and the great river was clean and pristine.

If the burning flesh, beyond dirty river, and tasty food aren’t enough, Varanasi is a short distance from culturally rich Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha delivered his first message after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath is also home to an Ashoka Pillar, constructed in 250 BCE by the legendary warlord turned benevolent emperor Ashoka. You can haggle with tuk-tuk drivers and get there and back from Varanasi for a few dollars.

The food in Varanasi was really good. Varanasi has quite a few sweets and is known for its betel nut, but I preferred to explore the more savory assortment of chaat. I particularly enjoyed aloo tikki, crisp potato patties served with spicy curry and a compliment of tasty sauces.

I stumbled across a major flower market where many of the funeral flowers come from, not far from the ghats; it was colorful, vibrant, and chaotic. The salespeople were extremely friendly and must be accustomed to visitors. They actually asked me to take their photos and fought with each other to be the subject of my shots – all without asking for money.

There are a number of guesthouses along the river and prices are comparable to other places in India with a single room running around $6 per night. Boat tours are offered each morning to catch the sunrise and provide an alternative angle to view the cremations.

Varanasi’s sites, tastes, and smells make it a deeply enriching destination to take in and is on the tourist map for good reason. Be warned: barbecue will never be the same after your visit.

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