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After spending a year improving my Spanish speaking skills with Rosetta Stone’s app, it was fun to take the leap and explore three different Spanish-speaking countries. I took my language learning process to a whole new level by traveling through Latin America and practicing along the way. In each country I visited, I sought out to find locals who are experts in what they do to teach me about their countries’ history, culture, and local traditions. From Colombia to Argentina to Mexico, I had so much fun getting Lost With Locals.
What to Call a Local in Spanish-Speaking Countries
One of the things I learned in the places I visited were the various ways you refer to a local person in different Spanish-speaking countries. Just like the hot sauce brand, tapatío is the word for a local in Guadalajara. Porteño is what you would call a local from Buenos Aires. Paisa is the word for a local in Colombia.
My first stop was a visit to the region of Antioquia. This was my second visit and such a different experience since I was now able to speak so much more of the language. Medellín is known for its street art, cocktail bars, exotic fruits, and one of the largest flower festivals in the world, Feria de Las Flores.
Lost with Locals: Medellín - YouTube
The World’s Largest Flower Festival
My time in Medellín, the city of flowers, was centered around Feria de Las Flores and one of the most unique desfiles, or ‘parades’, I have ever been to. All of the local flower growers who carry giant wooden frames on their backs, silleteros, come down from the countryside to celebrate. It’s a symbol of the culture in Medellín. I arrived a few days early because I wanted to see the small town of Santa Elena where many of the flower growers live including one of the famous silleteros, Jose Ignacio. He showed me around his house and farm and filled me in on all of the components from start to finish of getting ready for the desfile, or parade.
When the day of the parade finally arrives, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. In Feria de las Flores there are six different categories people are judged on, including one for the kids, and over 600 silleteros. It’s really backbreaking work carrying the silleta’s, giant wooden frames with floral designs on their back. All in the name of tradition, the parade itself was one of the most colorful I’ve seen around the world.
Colombia’s Most Colorful Town: Guatape
Trying a cocktail in Guatape.
Another place that was on my must-visit list is the most colorful town in Colombia – Guatape. I climbed to the top of El Peñol, more than 650 stairs, in Guatape to gain perspective on the beauty of the countryside that surrounds the small town. It was muy teso, or very hard, climbing up, but the 360 views were well worth it.
Inside the town of Guatape, the color pops everywhere you turn, from hanging plants to bars, restaurants, and churches. The houses are covered in color, too! I met up with a local pintando, or painter, named Nacho to learn more about the history of the town. Nacho had painted over half of the town and now his son is carrying on the family business painting the Zocalos with him.
Language Tip: In Mexico, Zocalo is the word that is used to refer to the center of the town. In the small colorful town of Guatape, they call the hand-painted borders in town Zocalos.
Local Fruits and Cocktails of Colombia
I always say you can’t visit a destination and leave without exploring one of the local markets. On this trip, I was interested to learn more about the cocktails scene in Medellín. My new friend Juan David, an award-winning bartender, took me to his favorite local market where he gets ingredients for the local cocktails he creates. Exploring La Plaza Mayorista, we picked out local fruits. Among them was one of my favorite—the lulo fruit. It has a sour bite and makes the perfect fruit for blending in drinks.
After our time at the market, we went back to the bar he owns, Old Tom Gin Bar to make a few cocktails. I was a bartender back in the day but it had been a while. Working aside Juan David was super fun. I even learned a few new Spanish words. Macerador, or muddler, was my favorite because it was such a tongue twister to say.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango dancers practice on the streets of B.A.
Buenos Aires is a city full of adventure—the underground food scene, and the birthplace of tango and also polo.
Lost with Locals: Buenos Aires - YouTube
Dancing the Night Away in Buenos Aires
Next up to explore was Buenos Aires, Argentina and just in time for the Tango Festival. I learned to dance, or ‘bailar’, the tango at one of the free classes offered during the festival, and followed around two professionals in the festival as they made it into the semifinals of the competition. I even had a chance to go backstage and see everyone warming up. The competition is fun, but that’s not where the dancing ends each day. People love to stay out late and dance the night away at a Milanga. After my practice session, I performed much better on this night out.
Language Tip—In Buenos Aires they speak castellano, which is a dialect of Spanish. Two ll’s sound like ‘sh’ and they use a lot of ‘sh’ for ‘ll’ words in Argentina.
Learning to Play Polo
When your think of polo, you think of Argentina. And for good reason! Half of the world’s polo players originated in the destination. I met up with local pro, Julito Cezares, at Puesto Viejo, an estancia, a large plot of private land in the countryside, to try my hand at the game for the very first time. We toured the stables, I suited up in my botas (boots) and casco (hat) before hopping on my docile horse and learned to play. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but when you have a good teacher you can catch on pretty quickly.
Language Tip: When in Argentina, you might hear the word ‘vos’ being used. It’s essentially synonymous with how you use ‘tú’ in Spanish – an informal pronoun. Be careful, however, because when used as a tense, el voseo changes verbs’ suffixes.
Guadalajara is a place of contrast. You’ll find a modern food and arts scene among centuries old architecture. It’s a place of tradition and my time in outside of the city was spent exploring just that.
Lost with Locals: Guadalajara - YouTube
Day of the Dead in Mexico—Día de Muertos
A tradition most known for being celebrated in Mexico, Día de Muertos is where people celebrate their loved ones who have passed on and remember them in a truly special way. Tlaquepaque, a suburb of the city, is where many locals go to partake in festivities. The streets are filled with sugar skulls, pan de muerto (dead bread), and people getting their faces painted in bright colors to represent those who have passed away.
The streets are lines with altars—each have a significance from the person who has passed away. Altars are decorated with marigold flowers, a favorite food or drink, or picture of the family member.
Language Tip: There’s a lot of back and forth about if it’s said Día de Muertos or Día de los Muertos. Most locals I met said Día De Muertos.
Traditional Foods of
Mexico has some of the best food in the world, and I always love tasting my way through a city by trying all of the traditional foods that come from a place. Guadalajara was no different and I’m pretty sure I left a few pounds heavier thanks to the torta ahogada which translates to a drowned sandwich. Make sure you have plenty of servietas, (napkins), for this one. Birria, braised goat, is a great one for a hangover. You can have it as a soup or as a taco. Posole, pork, hominy and always topped with fresh herbs, is a delicious soup and the verde, or blanco, comes from Guadalajara. We ended up at Gudelajara’s oldest bar to wash everything down with a tequila.
Agave and Tequila Tasting
A tequila distiller holding an agave.
I’m really into exploring origins and how things are made, so I planned a trip to visit the small colorful town of Tequila and visit the distillery that brought tequila to the world—Jose Cuervo. There are many types of agave, but in order to make tequila you have to use the blue agave and there is what seems like a sea of it everywhere you turn.
Cuervo taught me all about the origin, how to properly harvest the agave from the earth,the process it goes through while cooking, and of course tasting the final product was my favorite part. I like the super aged extra añejo, which has a delicious caramel flavor.
The last weekend tradition I partook in was a charrería, an event where people show off their equestrian skills through bull riding, roping and riding bareback. The event itself, the charreada, was super fun to watch. The charro’s, people doing the activity. My favorite part was going behind the scenes and getting in on the action interviewing locals. Before I left, I also tried my hand at the ropework. Turns out, I am bad at this.
Practicing Live in Spanish-Speaking Countries
Rosetta Stone helped me confidently speak while touring around
three different countries and it was really interesting to learn along the way
on the ground while noticing different ways locals speak in their own local
Ready to plan your journey to Latin America? Start learning Spanish today.
Kristen Kellogg is the founder and creative director behind Border Free Travels. When she’s not out exploring and filming the world, she’s planning trips for others through her sister company, Salt & Wind Travel, showing clients how to have more meaningful experiences around the world.
Cơm gà Hải Nam, or Hainanese chicken rice originates from the Hainan Province in China, but is popular throughout Thailand and Vietnam. It starts with a modestly poached chicken in a simple, fragrant broth of onions, garlic, and ginger. It simmers and soaks up the flavor of the broth for the better part of an hour.
For the chicken: 1 whole chicken 1 onion, peeled and halved 4-5 garlic cloves, crushed Large piece of ginger, peeled and crushed Water
For the rice: 1 cup of jasmine rice 1-2 Tbsp finely minced ginger 1 cup broth from chicken
For the nước mắm gừng (ginger fish sauce): 1/4 cup lime juice 1-2 Tbsp sugar 2-3 Tbsp fish sauce 2-3 Tbsp ginger, finely minced 2 garlic cloves, finely minced 1 bird’s eye chili, finely minced 5-6 kaffir lime leaves, julienned Coriander leaves Bunch of cilantro
Directions: Rinse the whole chicken and pat it dry. Put it in a stockpot along with the onion, garlic, shallot, and ginger. Fill with water and boil up to one hour until chicken is cooked and firm but not falling apart.
Rinse the rice until the water runs clear and most of the starch has been removed. Let dry in a colander. Saute the rice in a skillet on the stove with the minced ginger until the grains become slightly brown and the ginger is fragrant. Cook the rice in a rice cooker with one cup of broth from the boiled chicken.
Mix together ingredients for the ginger fish dipping sauce, shaking in a closed jar to even disperse the sugar. Keep 1-2 weeks in your refrigerator and use as needed. Ul apart or cut the chicken. Sprinkle with kaffir lime leaves. Serve with ginger rice, dipping sauce, and herbs.
Eat. Smell. Savor.
About Vietnamese Cuisine
Vietnamese cuisine has become increasingly popular across the world for two things: phở (fuh), a rice noodle soup, and bánh mì (bahn mee), a baguette sandwich packed with meat and pickled veggies. But Vietnamese food is about much more than these two dishes. The cuisine of Vietnam focuses on engaging the senses through food, where fragrant herbs and sauces take center stage.
Home cooks in Vietnam strive to find balance on their dinner table based on five flavors that correspond to elements: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). Vietnamese cooks use a combination of bright colored vegetables, spices, and proteins to create a yin and yang approach to every mouthful.
The backbone of most traditional tables in Vietnam is rice. It’s quite common in the villages for peasants and rice farmers to eat cơm tấm (cughm tum)or “broken rice,” because the inferior grains are separated and consumed at home instead of sold. Many Vietnamese live close to extended family that gather for meals at large tables, serving themselves meat, vegetables, and herbs out of communal plates. There is a dedication to creating the perfect mouthful by dipping each bite into a small dish of savory sauce before scooping it up with plump, slightly sticky grains of rice.
On a traditional table in Vietnam, you’re likely to find some combination of the following food offered.
Cơm tấm, or cơm (“Broken Rice”)
Thit (Meat- usually pork or chicken)
Thảo mộc (Herbs like coriander, kaffir leaves, and cilantro)
Mắm (Sauces based on fish, lime, and ginger)
While the traditional meat and rice dishes may seem quite simple, it’s the sauces and herbs that elevate flavors and make Vietnamese food a siren song for the senses.
Food, Family & The Fall of Saigon
Jennifer Ngo has a very intimate relationship with the fragrance of Vietnamese food. She spends hours in the kitchen, conjuring up her mother’s recipes by smell. Jennifer’s dad was in the Navy, and her mother was from a village in rural Vietnam. She and her family fled the fall of Saigon in April of 1975 and were packed onto the USS Midway along with thousands of other Vietnamese refugees.
Jennifer Ngo recalls the traditional food from her childhood.
Jennifer, who was three at the time, doesn’t remember much about the evacuation. But she still has the portraits that used to hang in their family home, photos her father insisted be taken of each of the children right before they left Vietnam.
“He had written on there our names and our birth dates and then, on the back, the names of the rest of the family. We carried our own pictures and he stuffed the frames with money because we could have been separated and he wanted us to know who we were and know who our family was. And he hoped that whoever found us would take care of us.”
They stayed briefly in Guam and then arrived stateside at Camp Pendleton, where a Lutheran pastor sponsored Jennifer’s family. He helped them find jobs, learn English, and assimilate into American culture. Jennifer says she’s glad she still speaks Vietnamese but wishes she’d paid closer attention to other parts of her heritage.
“My brothers and I wanted so much to fit in. And now, I’m glad I retained something. I regretfully think I should have listened more to my dad because he kept saying, don’t lose the language. Don’t lose the heritage or one day you’ll be sorry. At that time I thought I will NOT be sorry and now I’m sorry that I don’t know more than I do. He was absolutely right.”
Jennifer says one of her biggest regrets is not having her mother’s traditional Vietnamese recipes. She inherited a manilla folder full of handwritten notes but was heartbroken when it was lost. Jennifer has spent years trying to carefully construct the dishes she enjoyed as a child, navigating by smell to recreate the humble dishes she remembers.
Cơm gà Hải Nam: A Vietnamese Classic
LISTEN: How to pronounce Cơm gà Hải Nam in Vietnamese.
One of those dishes is Cơm gà Hải Nam, or Hainanese chicken rice (recipe available above). It originates from the Hainan Province in China but is popular throughout Thailand and Vietnam. It starts with a modestly poached chicken in a simple, fragrant broth of onions, garlic, and ginger. It simmers and soaks up the flavor of the broth for the better part of an hour.
The rice that accompanies Hainanese chicken in this recipe is just jasmine, but it’s rinsed thoroughly to remove the starch and create a stickier, plumper grain. The rice, sauteed in ginger and garlic, then cooks with broth from the poached chicken and is served with heaps of fresh herbs and a ginger fish sauce.
Most of the ingredients for this traditional Vietnamese dish can be found at your local grocery store, but a few herbs like coriander and kaffir leaves may necessitate a special trip to an Asian market. Enjoy this fragrant Vietnamese dish and, if your house smells a bit too much like fish sauce, Jennifer has one final insider tip for you. Boil a little water and vinegar on your stove to combat pungent smells and return balance to your senses.
An outdoor patio at Mercado, where both the head chef and bartender are from Mexico.
On New Year’s Eve, as people around the world celebrated with a kiss
or a glass of Champagne, some partygoers in Nairobi celebrated a different way:
with 12 grapes, one for each month of the year, as the clock ticked down to
midnight. This Mexican tradition, which dates back to the Spanish colonial
period and is said to bring good luck, arrived in Nairobi on the crest of a
cultural wave that is taking over Kenya’s trendiest corners. Mexican culture is
everywhere: on restaurant menus, in dance clubs, on television. Although the number of actual Mexicans in
Nairobi is small — about 200 people, according to embassy estimates — and they
don’t have a defined neighborhood, their influence on the city’s cultural life
is hard to miss (and that’s not even including Lupita Nyong’o, the daughter of
Kenyans who was born in Mexico City). Nairobians can drink tequila and dance to
Mexican-Kenyan fusion music at Blend Lounge on a Saturday night, then worship
with Mexican Catholic priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish the next morning.
Decent Mexican food is notoriously hard to find throughout Africa, but in
Nairobi, hungry travelers don’t even have to leave the airport: at Java House,
East Africa’s answer to Starbucks, they can feast on quesadillas, guacamole,
and even huevos rancheros. The first
Mexicans came to Kenya in the late ‘40s, as Catholic missionaries. Here’s how
their influence spread.
The fusion of Mexican and Kenyan cultures began in the 1980s, as Latin
American telenovelas, mostly from Mexico, took over Kenyan airwaves. The rights
for these soap operas were cheaper to buy than those for U.S. shows, so
networks snatched them up. Today, business is still booming: Caroline
Mbindyo-Koroso, a CEO and executive producer of African Voices Dubbing Co.,
says the company started out in early 2015 with two employees dubbing soap
operas. Now it’s the biggest dubbing company in East Africa, with 15 recording
booths and four dedicated mixing stations.
Mbindyo-Koroso says soap operas are so popular because they’re
aspirational: a pretty, downtrodden hero or heroine overcomes daunting odds —
an evil stepmother, a bespectacled business tycoon — to achieve greatness. Most
Mexican telenovelas in Kenya currently air in English, but Mbindyo-Koroso thinks
there would be even more potential if they were dubbed into local languages.
There are more than 120 million Swahili speakers in Africa, she notes.
To the Radio
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos, 28, had always idolized the Mexicans who had worked in Kenya as missionaries. After seminary school, but before his ordination, Gallegos followed their footsteps, intending to spread the Gospel. Instead Gallegos fell in love with genge, Nairobi’s homegrown genre that combines traditional hip-hop beats with rap lyrics in Kiswahili and Sheng. With telenovelas popular, he reasoned: Why couldn’t Mexican-Kenyan fusion be the next big thing in music, too? Gallegos ditched the priesthood and adopted the stage name “Romantico” to pursue a life in rap. His collaborations with Kenyan artists, including Samaki Mkuu (the Kenyan Olympic swimmer Jason Dunford), and the so-called father of genge, Jua Cali, are addictive mash-ups: In the video for his 2018 single, Mkora (which means “scoundrel”), Romantico raps in Spanish and Swahili while wearing a bright-blue Mexican wrestler mask. In a forthcoming song, he re-imagines the Veracruz classic “La Bamba” with genge soul. “We are starting a new movement here in East Africa: a fusion of Spanish and Swahili music,” said Romantico, sitting outside a Nairobi taqueria where Kenyan employees clamored to take selfies with him. “The people can feel that it belongs to us. When we are singing, we are not singing for ourselves. We are singing for the people.” And the people love it: Already, Romantico has performed on two of Kenya’s most popular TV shows, “Ten Over Ten” and “The Churchill Show.” The hype has spilled over into classical music genres, too. Kenyan classical guitarist Kevin Munyi, who specializes in private performances and corporate events, said there is suddenly more demand for mariachi music than ever before.
To the Restaurant Kitchen
Beef tacos at Mercado. The cuisine has similarities to Kenya’s own.
Spira Cornel had never tasted Mexican food before he became the head chef at Fonda NBO, one of Nairobi’s most popular Mexican restaurants.
“Mexican food has a checkered history in Kenya,” said Salisha Chandra,
one of the co-owners of Fonda NBO, which became Nairobi’s first authentic
Mexican restaurant when it opened in October 2017. (NBO is the airport code for
the city’s international airport and has become shorthand for the city.) “It
was only Tex-Mex, and those restaurants opened and closed very quickly.” Chandra and her husband, Yash Krishna, lived
in the United States for several years, including in California, before finally
returning home to Nairobi. They missed the food they had fallen in love with
abroad. “We couldn’t figure out why
there wasn’t any really good, authentic Mexican food here,” Chandra said. “It’s
really similar to Kenyan food, in terms of ingredients: corn, avocados, beans.
We said, ‘It should work really well with the Kenyan palate.’” Indeed, ugali (the stiff cornmeal porridge
that is ubiquitous in East African cuisine) is reminiscent of Mexican corn
masa, and kachumbari, a Kenyan fresh tomato and onion salad, is a dead ringer
for pico de gallo. Chandra and the other
co-owners traveled to Mexico, where they ate their way around the country, then
flew acclaimed Mexican chef Juan Cabrera Barrón to Nairobi for 10 days to help
develop the menu. Authenticity was key: When certain ingredients, such as
guajillo chilies and epazote herbs, weren’t available in Kenya, Fonda NBO
partnered with an organic farm to grow them. And after more than a dozen
misfires, they finally found a local Kenyan cheesemaker to make perfect queso
fresco and queso Oaxaca from scratch.
Spira Cornel, the head chef at Fonda NBO, honed his skills with many
different global cuisines but had never even tasted Mexican food before. “From
day one, it was a blast for us as chefs. Mexican and Kenyan recipes use the
same ingredients, but it’s a very different platform and techniques.” Since Fonda NBO opened, Nairobi’s Mexican
food scene has boomed: At Mercado, in Westlands, the head chef and bartender
are both from Mexico, and at Alchemist, a cultural marketplace of pop-up bars,
music venues, and food trucks, hipsters can wash down nachos with Mexican-inspired
tequila cocktails. Jay Muchai, a Kenyan
chef and manager at Fonda NBO, has never traveled to Mexico but still feels a
strong connection to the country. “Every time I serve the locals, I pretend to
be more Mexican than Kenyan,” he said. “They say Mexican food feels like home
food. It has the same soul.”
Whether you’re in Nairobi or Mexico City, Latin American Spanish is just around the corner with Rosetta Stone.
Ben Learns Languages | Portuguese: Episode 1 - YouTube
Hey everyone! I’m excited to launch my blog “Ben Learns Languages.” I’m going to share my journey with you as I become multilingual by using the Rosetta Stone app.
First up, I’m learning Portuguese! I’m starting in Unit 1, which is all about the basics. I’m essentially as fluent as a toddler. I can ask what things are, and identify cats, dogs, adults, and children, which is great! It’s all about baby steps.
The biggest challenge so far is the range of sounds in Portuguese. It’s completely different from other languages I know. Right now, I swing from sounding Spanish to Italian to American. I pride myself on my pronunciation skills, so it’s been very humbling.
But I still have that rush I always get when I start to unlock a new language! I’ll post every couple of weeks as I make progress. Hopefully, I’ll be posting in Portuguese before too long!
What comes to mind when you hear the world “hostel?” A gaggle of 20-somethings on a weeklong bender? Smelly hippie-types barefoot hiking around the world? A movie series that managed to combine enough torture and grunge to scar a generation?
What if I told you that for the majority of the last five years I’ve traveled all over the world, and in that time stayed at some of the most incredible places … that just happened to be hostels? That I’ve met dear friends and adventurous companions, all while paying a fraction of what a hotel would charge? Hostels aren’t what you think, at least, not anymore. While every hostel is different, I’ve stayed in over 100 across six continents and feel comfortable offering some general observations.
What You’ll Find in Today’s Hostels
In the most general terms, a hostel is just like a hotel, except you usually have to share a bathroom. For the lowest room rates, you’ll also share a room. Additionally, most hostels have a kitchen and a lounge. The most common dorm, or shared room, has 4 beds, usually in the form of two bunk beds. Most hostels will have rooms with more beds that are cheaper per night, and rooms with fewer beds for slightly more money per night. Only hostels in the most touristy areas will have rooms with a dozen beds or more.
The more people in a room, the lower the rates, but it’s just by a few dollars a night. Unless your budget is very tight, a smaller room will generally be quieter and worth the small premium. Most hostels also have private rooms, which are their most expensive rooms, but still usually cheaper than a hotel. These can be good for couples, families, or even just an individual looking for a quiet night’s sleep. In addition to the bed, sheets and a pillow, you’ll nearly always have a locker to hold your bags or valuables. Just like a hotel, almost every hostel locks their doors at night, and has keys, cards or codes required to access both the hostel and your room.
Some hostels have “en-suite” rooms, as in there’s a bathroom attached to the room, like you’d find in a hotel, just shared with the people staying in that room. Personally, I’m not a big fan. Usually that means you’re all fighting for that one bathroom all at the same time. Plus, if someone creates an odorous mess (I’m talking about a deluge of Axe body spray, obviously), then the whole room will smell like that too.
Very, very rarely is there an upper age limit at a hostel. At 40 I’m almost never the oldest, although the average age is younger. Almost all, however, have a lower age limit. Travelers under 18 usually can’t say in dorm rooms. Nearly every hostel will have women-only dorms available, though the majority of rooms are coed.
How To Find And Book A Good Hostel
Just like hotels, hostels have review and booking websites to help you find where to stay. Hostelworld andHostelz are two of the big ones. These feature reviews from recent travelers, lists of amenities, and most importantly, pictures.
The pictures tell a story, directly and indirectly. Sure, you get to see what the hostel looks like, in a best-case “we’re having photographs taken today” fashion, but they’ll also give you an idea what the hostel is about. Is every photo a bunch of people drinking? Party hostel. Are there lots of photos of people reading or playing board games? Probably chill and relaxed. These sometimes go beyond the description and inform you what staying there will be like.
Since you’ll likely be sharing the space, be extra aware of your person and your belongings. For example, don’t eat chips at 1 a.m. Don’t leave your durian or Limburger or lutefisk sandwich on your bed. Also, and this is a personal pet peeve, don’t use plastic bags in your luggage. The loudest sound in the universe is someone packing their belongings into plastic bags at 5 a.m.
But my biggest advice? Say hello and introduce yourself. Most people in hostels are traveling alone. Break the tension with a smile and a handshake. After all, you’ll be living with these folks for a night or more. Who knows, you might even make a new friend. I sure have. As an inveterate introvert and part-time misanthrope, no one was more surprised than I to find that most travelers are good people. Many are amazing and well worth meeting.
Hostels are not perfect, and like hotels will vary considerably region to region. There is an adjustment, of course, needed to sleep next to strangers. But for that adjustment and lack of perfection, you’ll be able to travel longer and cheaper. Especially if you’re considering slumming in a cheap, possibly questionable hotel instead. I’ve stayed in bad hotels and bad hostels, and the latter is far easier to take when it costs a fraction of what a cheap hotel costs.
Oh, and the Wi-Fi is almost always free. Can’t say that about hotels.
Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer/photographer covering tech and travel. He’s the editor-at-large for Wirecutter and you can also find his work at CNET. He’s the author of the best-selling sci-fi novel “Undersea,” and you can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
New grads with freshly minted diplomas and polished resumes will apply for open positions in droves this summer. And, as always, the competition for new grads hitting the job market is fierce. So how can recent graduates stand out? New grads might want to add learning a second language to their post-commencement to-do list.
Results from a survey of Rosetta Stone users show that learning a second language may aid job seekers on the hunt for employment. Can you set yourself apart and increase career prospects simply by learning a second language? These survey results point to yes.
In March, Rosetta Stone users opened up about the impact that learning a second language had on hiring and career trajectory. Among Rosetta Stone users who are responsible for hiring or managing people, 35% granted a job interview, extended a job offer, or recommended a promotion or pay raise because of an employee’s proficiency in another language.
If that wasn’t reason enough to start working in those daily #RosettaSessions, maybe these insights on the importance of knowing another language will make learning a second language a top post-graduation priority. Over half of Rosetta Stone users (54%) who are employed say that knowing another language is important in their current jobs, and more than one-third (35%) are choosing to learn another language to help with their current position or their future career.
What about you? Would you consider learning a second language to edge out the competition?
In places like America, Chinese food has developed its own distinct flavor that is markedly different from that of its homeland. In fact, North American Chinese dishes, heavy with thick, sweet sauces, are not what you’d encounter in the countryside and cities of China. China is a diverse place with multiple cultural influences, so the ways in which the cuisine is treated as a conglomerate entirely misses the point. There are 23 Chinese provinces, and depending on their location, the food in that region may enjoy influence from Mongolia, Russia, India, or Korea. For example, Sichuan cuisine is spicy, Shandong cuisine is generally salty and crispy, and Cantonese cuisine is sweet.
Much of what the world knows as Chinese food can be traced back to immigrants to California, specifically Chinatown in San Francisco. These Chinese immigrants were mostly from the southern province of Guangdong, so Americanized Chinese food tends to reflect the cuisine of that region. Even fortune cookies, so ubiquitous in every Chinese restaurant, are an American invention. One of the significant differences between authentic Chinese food and popularized stateside versions is the cooking methods and the spice level. There aren’t many fried foods in authentic Chinese recipes, which rely instead upon simple, lean meats and poultry or tofu accompanied by noodles or rice and flavored with fragrant ingredients like garlic, scallions, and ginger.
Chinese food also relies heavily upon elements they consider medicinal, embracing five components of wellness that include metal (金), wood (木), water (水), fire (火), and earth (土). Fire foods, like tomatoes and apples, are considered good for your heart and brain while metal foods like garlic and onions are believed to promote respiratory health. This kind of yin and yang philosophy about food is reflected in many Chinese dishes, which focus on a balance of ingredients.
A traditional Chinese table will, of course, vary from region to region. Colder provinces enjoy soups, while warmer places by the sea incorporate more fish into their diet. Some provinces are known for growing superior soybeans or rice, so that food features prominently in the cuisine of the area.
Here are a few of the dishes you’ll find crowding tables across China: 1. Soups (noodle or dumpling soups) 2. Dumplings 3. Tofu or chicken 4. Rice (sticky varieties, usually white) 5. Tea
Starches like rice or noodles make up the backbone of most meals, which are served family style in big bowls in the center of the table. Tea accompanies every meal and, of course, there are rules about chopsticks. Chinese culture reflects a rich lexicon of tradition handed down through centuries of civilizations. This means that small things like sticking your chopsticks upright in your bowl can have significant meaning. In Chinese culture, this is frowned upon because it’s something you might see on an altar to honor dead ancestors. Pointing chopsticks while talking is also considered rude, akin to pointing fingers at someone in public. And where you are seated at the table matters and is a reflection of your importance among the group, which is a custom handed down from older times when Chinese families were large and included several wives.
With so much to remember, it can be easy to forget that the point of eating authentic Chinese cuisine is to absorb as much of the culture as possible and to enjoy the colorful tapestry of tastes that is emblematic of one of the largest, most populated places on the planet.
Chinese Cuisine Reflects Rich Cultural Traditions
Mimi Zhang at home.
Mimi Zhang came to the United States in 2009 on a work visa, teaching Chinese to American schoolchildren. She wanted to see the world and soak up some other cultures, but she met the man who was to become her husband while in the States and fell in love. They had a daughter, and now Mimi’s applying for American citizenship while her husband works at a local military base. Mimi spends her days caring for her daughter and husband and cooking up authentic Chinese food in her kitchen.
Mimi’s family is from the northeast province of Liáoníng, sometimes referred to as the Golden Triangle because of its unique shape and geographic location along the Yellow Sea. She describes it as similar to the climate of Massachusetts, with humid, cold winters and warm summers. Mimi and her family grew up in a densely populated city, close to North Korea and Russia and she grew up speaking Mandarin, the national language of China.
“When you turn on the TV, everyone is speaking Mandarin. Everybody understands it, but not everyone can speak it. People from the south of China have their own dialect. For me, it’s like another language. When they speak, I have no idea what they are talking about because their pronunciation is totally different. When we write, though, we write the same characters.”
In northeast China where Mimi is from, it was traditionally hard to get fresh fruit or vegetables in the wintertime, so they often enjoyed picked vegetables instead that would last longer. And the dishes of her home province reflect the colder climate, with plenty of soups and heartier fare than southern Chinese regions prefer.
“I still remember my daddy had a big jar… it would hold 30 or 40 heads of cabbage. He would put everything inside without even washing it. That’s the way you do it—if you wash it, you ruin it. And he’d put bags of salt and then add water and let it sit for months before we’d eat it. It tastes like sauerkraut. I’m so happy I found it here… here they call it ‘German-style.’ It’s so funny. Sometimes we share the same technique to make food.”
Mimi recalls her mom’s parenting style was one of empowerment, and it taught her at an early age to be comfortable with learning new things and to challenge herself. While she didn’t learn a lot of traditional recipes handed down through her family, Mimi’s mom did teach her basic techniques of steaming and preparation so she could cook and eat the foods she loved
“I like to eat. My mom said she wasn’t a good cook, but she said she would tell me how to cook and take me to restaurants so I could see other people cook. So that’s the good thing about my mom. She not only gave me the fish, she taught me how to fish.”
One of the things that puzzled Mimi when she first arrived in the U.S. was the extensive collection of tools and implements in the kitchen. She says in China, there is a saying that you need to have the right tool for the job but in the kitchens of her homeland, they didn’t have ten or fifteen different knives. Chinese cooks typically have a broad flat knife that resembles a cleaver and allows for quick, precise chopping but also serves as a spatula to sweep up cut veggies. It was one of the first things she bought when she started cooking in her own stateside kitchen.
And it wasn’t just differences the cooking techniques, ingredients, and preparation that Mimi had to adjust to. It was also the style of consuming food and the ways in which it reflects the culture in America. For instance, in China, it’s considered common courtesy to always wait until the head of the family begins eating before you dig in. Mimi says she’s inadvertently handed down some of these traditions to her three-year-old daughter, who adorably insists that the entire family is seated before she begins to eat no matter how informal the meal.
“When you eat, you can see the differences in the way people think, the different thinking in the culture. In China, we’re a whole family, and we share everything but here it’s ‘this is your dish and this is mine,’ and everyone eats their own. When I first came here, I had to adjust to only ordering for yourself. In China, we would order four dishes and then all share.”
This intersection of customs and cuisine often reflects the values of a culture and can get beyond the barriers of language to communicate something vital about a country’s sense of community and family.
A Classic Bowl of Chinese Comfort
Wonton, otherwise known as 馄饨 (húntún) in Chinese, has many different varieties depending on the region. In some provinces, the dumplings have thin skins and are filled with shrimp, while other areas enjoy thicker-skinned, heartier dumplings that make soup into a more filling meal. Our wonton soup is Cantonese, with a broth seasoned with seaweed, scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds
LISTEN: How to pronounce wonton in Chinese.
This fragrant soup is a favorite not only in the colder climates of northern China but also when illness strikes. The inclusion of copious amounts of ginger to aid digestion, as well as scallions and invigorating broth, is believed to clear the sinuses and rejuvenate the body. Wonton soup isn’t just regulated to the Chinese dinner table. It’s often eaten as a quick lunch meal or even for breakfast.
Most of the ingredients you’ll need for the wontons and soup can be found at a standard grocery store, although Asian markets may have the thicker wrappers you’ll want to use and the larger pieces of ginger necessary to flavor the broth. Accomplished Chinese cooks make and cut their own wonton wrappers and prepare the broth from scratch with sparerib bones, but it’s also perfectly fine to take a few shortcuts and still get to the heart of this classic Cantonese recipe.
Shrimp & Pork Wonton Soup
For the wonton filling: 2 green onions/scallions ½ lb shrimp (about 8 pieces) (shelled and deveined) ½ lb ground pork 1-inch ginger, finely chopped 2 tsp. soy sauce 1 tsp. sesame oil 1 tsp. honey 2 tsp. soy sauce 1 tbsp. honey 1 package of wonton wrappers (about 40 to 50 wrappers)
For the broth: 1 green onion (scallion) 6 cups chicken stock or broth 1 tsp sesame oil 1 tsp salt
For serving: cilantro sesame seeds seaweed scallions scallions
Directions: To make the wonton filling, chop 2 green onions. Save some chopped green onions or scallions to serve with the soup. Chop cilantro and set aside to serve with the soup. Cut the shrimp into small pieces to fit in the wonton wrapper. In a large bowl, combine the pork, shrimp, and chopped green onion. Add chopped fresh ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and honey to the mixture. Toss and let marinate for several hours if possible.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Separate the wonton wrappers from one another and fan them out on a plate. Put a small dish of water nearby where you’ll be working to fill the wontons. Place a wrapper on your hand and a teaspoon of the filling in the center of the wrapper. Start with a small amount of filling, then use your finger to moisten the edges of the wrapper with water
When the edges have been moistened, fold the wrapper in half to create a rectangular shape, pressing any air that might be trapped around the filling. Fold the corners toward each other until they touch and overlap. Wet your fingertips and seal them closed, then set the wonton aside and a plate or baking sheet.
Once you’ve wrapped the wontons, put 5-8 wrapping wontons in the boiling pot of water. Cook 5 minutes, or until wontons float on the surface of the water. Use a slotted spoon to remove them from the water. You can freeze any wontons you don’t need and use them later.
Assemble a bowl with a piece or two of seaweed, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, some sesame oil, and a generous helping of scallions and cilantro. Add warmed broth. Serve immediately and savor the smell of your bowl of Chinese comfort.
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The awakening of Mother Nature from her winter slumber brings with it not just the beginning of a new season, but the beginning of a new day. Nowruz, literally “new day,” which happens on the vernal equinox, marks a new year for several countries around the world. In 2019, it occurred on Wednesday, March 20 at 17:58:27 EST. Though the specific traditions somewhat vary from country to country, the central theme remains the same: a celebration of spring and a time for rebirth and renewal. So without further ado, let’s get into what Nowruz is all about and how it’s celebrated around the world.
Countries that celebrate.
Nowruz is also called the Persian New Year and therefore often mistaken as being an Iran-only holiday. And while it is the biggest and most important holiday in Iran, it’s also a major celebration in other parts of the world, including Central Asian and Caucasus countries and parts of the Balkans. Today, Nowruz festivities are held in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Georgia, Tajikistan, Albania, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and parts of India and Pakistan. The Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria as well as the Turkic community in western China also celebrate.
Long before Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism was the main religion in these parts, and Nowruz is said to have been invented by the prophet Zoroaster himself. Nowruz has been celebrated for over 3 millennia, and today, the people continue to celebrate the traditions of their ancient ancestors. Fire was at the center of the Zoroastrian religion as it was believed to have purifying powers and provided warmth, light, and food. This is why despite some of the different customs across cultures, fire remains a constant throughout all Nowruz celebrations.
United Nations recognition.
In 2010, the UN General Assembly officially declared March 21 as International Day of Nowruz. This holiday has also been inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So how is Nowruz celebrated around the world? Let’s take a tour and discover some of the most fascinating traditions.
Iranians begin their Nowruz preparation during the last month of winter by starting with a spring cleaning called khuneh tekuni, (literally, “shaking the house”). Once the home is in order, it’s time to cleanse the soul for the coming year. Enter Châhârshanbe Suri, or “Red Wednesday,” a Zoroastrian-rooted festival that occurs on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year. On this night, bonfires light up the streets, and people jump over them in a symbolic act of exchanging sickness and negativity for the fire’s health and warm, red glow.
Around Nowruz, you’ll also spot the beloved Haji Firooz, a cheerful, folkloric character with a face of soot who dons a red suit. It’s said that in the past, Zoroastrian priests sent Haji Firooz to help people burn their old belongings to make way for renewal. In the process, Haji Firooz’s face turned black from the smoke. These days, spotting him around town as he plays a tambourine or bongo signals the coming of Nowruz.
In the final prelude to Nowruz, Iranians set a traditional table spread called Haft Seen, which consists of seven plant-based items that all begin with the Persian letter “seen,” equivalent to the English “s”. These items include sabzeh (lentil and/or wheat sprouts, symbolizing growth and rebirth), seeb (apple, symbolizing beauty), senjed (oleaster, symbolizing love), samanu (wheat germ pudding, symbolizing affluence), somâgh (sumac, symbolizing patience), seer (garlic, symbolizing good health), and serkeh (vinegar, symbolizing wisdom). Other items that grace the table are painted eggs (symbolizing fertility), hyacinth, goldfish (symbolizing life), a mirror, candles, a holy book, and sweets.
All of this leads to the official arrival of spring. And on this day, Iranians enjoy the must-eat Nowruz dishes: herb rice with white fish and an herb frittata called kookoo sabzi. The two weeks that follow are devoted to family time as younger family members visit their elderly relatives first, and then the visit is returned. On the 13th and final day of Nowruz, Sizdeh Bedar, people have to spend the day outdoors lest they get bad luck. Parks and green spaces become flooded with Iranians picnicking, playing games, and eating.
The main festival in Afghanistan is Guli Surkh, or the Red Flower Festival, and occurs in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the hills and plains surrounding the city are carpeted in colorful tulips. During this festival, buzkashi tournaments are also held. This Afghan national sport is similar to polo, only a goat carcass is used in place of a ball.
For Afghans, one of the main traditions is the food. Haft Mewa (seven fruits) is a compote made with various dried fruits and nuts including red raisins, black raisins, yellow raisins, senjed (the dried oleaster fruit), pistachio, dried apricots, and dried apples. On the eve of Nowruz, locals eat sabzi challow, (spinach and rice) with rooster or white fish, to welcome spring and hope for a year of prosperous crops. Finally, samanak, a wheat germ pudding, is a labor-intensive, Nowruz staple. Women sing folk songs while making the sweet dessert, which must be stirred constantly for hours. Special cookies and other sweets are also plentiful on this day.
For the Kurdish population, Newroz is closely linked to the story of Kawa (or Kaveh) from Ferdowsi’s epic poem, Shahnameh. In the mythical tale, Kawa was a blacksmith who led a national uprising against the tyrannical rule of Zahhak after two of his sons were lost to Zahhak’s ravenous serpents. Newroz was then established to commemorate this victory. Kurdish festivities are marked by wearing traditional clothes, lighting spectacular bonfires on the eve, and dancing.
The word “Azerbaijan” itself means “the land of fire,” and Novruz in this part of the world is a week-long holiday marked by dancing, athletics, and, of course, food. The Azeri people wear their national clothes and perform the traditional yalli dance hand-in-hand around the fire. There are also street performances of men lifting weights to display the strength that they have regained upon the arrival of spring. Using a torch from the sacred Fire Temple, the central bonfire is lit, and locals jump over it while telling the fire to take and burn all their worries and difficulties.
As in other parts of the world, food is a major component in Azeri festivities. Typical Novruz dishes include an assortment of rice pilafs and kebabs, stuffed grape leaves, and sweets such as shekerbura, a half moon-shaped pastry symbolizing the flame of the fire. Wheat sprouts are tied with a red ribbon and placed on a khoncha, a tray with painted eggs, candles, sweets, and nuts.
Because Novruz is an auspicious time to receive divination, only positive words should be spoken on the chance that someone is listening. Women who overhear any talks of marriage will get married in the year to come.
Nauryz is a major public holiday throughout Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. A commonality across these countries is the making of sumalak, the thick pudding made from wheatgrass. This sweet dessert requires almost a full 24 hours to prepare, so women gather around and stir the huge pots for hours while singing folk songs. In Kyrgyzstan, boorsok (deep fried pieces of dough) and chak chak (fried dough soaked in honey syrup) are also abundant.
For Kazakhs, it’s not just the holiday that’s called Nauryz, but the entire month of March. In fact, children born during this month are often named derivations of Nauryz. Kazakhs prepare by decluttering and cleaning their homes, wearing their national costumes, and playing musical instruments. They erect yurts and place a dastarkhan, a traditional table spread, in each. Their main dish, Nauryz kozhe, is a recipe with seven essential ingredients including water, meat, salt, milk or yogurt, and grains. This dish, which symbolizes seven life virtues, is offered to guests and neighbors.
Much like Iranians, Tajiks also have a table setting with seven items beginning with the letter S. A week before Nowruz, during the flower festival of Gol Gardani, children wear colorful, traditional clothing and gather wildflowers from the mountain hills to present to their neighbors as a sign that winter has ended. In exchange, neighbors offer the children sweets and candy. This is accompanied by games, dancing, and singing folk songs. Much like Afghanistan, buzkashi competitions take place at this time in Tajikistan, as do wrestling matches and horse races.
How to say “Happy New Year.”
Wish your friends and family who celebrate a Happy New Year in Persian by saying:
Start your Farsi journey today with Rosetta Stone.
Pontia Fallahi writes and blogs about all things Iran: culture, language, and travel. She was born and raised in the US and has lived in Tehran for four years, the combination of which gives her an unbiased perspective on Iran and a unique ability to explain cultural nuances to foreigners. A teacher and lifelong learner, she delivers cultural explainers and language tips for Iranophiles.
Trying out Seek & Speak in France | Nathalia Ramos - YouTube
Paris is a city that never fails to sweep me off my feet. Walking down the grand boulevards and hidden alleys I am consistently astonished by the beauty that surrounds me. Every meal is cause for celebration, an event that demands my full attention and appreciation. Even the sounds are delightful, as I find no language more pleasing to listen to than French. It is a language I wish I could speak. Although I spent some time studying it in school and abroad, it was a goal I never felt able to achieve.
The first time I visited Paris was in 2009. It was the summer after I graduated high school and my friends and I had organized a Euro trip. (If I still lived in Australia this would be my “gap year,” the year between when you finish high school and start college or uni, as the Aussies say, which many spend traveling abroad. But, unfortunately in America we only get the summer.) I was in Paris for nearly a month and took French lessons four times a week. I naïvely thought that because I spoke Spanish, French would be a breeze. I imagined I’d be chatting with new friends over café au lait (coffee and milk) and croissants in the local pâtisserie (bakery) within a matter of days. I was rudely awakened by the discovery that my fluency of Spanish was of little help with vocabulary and, even worse, it was a hindrance when it came to speaking. Like a bad habit, I would repeatedly pronounce the French words as though they were Spanish. I just couldn’t get the French diction to stick. I had hoped to gain a new language that trip, but gained little more than a few pounds instead.
I have been back to Paris several times since but, after the first attempt, was too embarrassed to give learning French another try. Instead I would spend my days getting lost in the different arrondissements (districts) of the city, appreciating each one for its unique charm. The 1st arrondissement is full of grandeur and prestige. It is there you can visit the world-renowned Louvre Museum, shop the world’s’ most iconic designer brands on Rue Saint-Honoré and wave to the president from outside the gates of the Élysée Palace. Just a few blocks from there you’ll find yourself in the eighth arrondissement on the Champs-Élysées, one of the most famous avenues of the world. The 1st and the 8th arrondissements border one another because the city is laid out like a snail shell, starting with the 1st arr. in the center and circling around from there until you reach the Périphérique Blvd. that separates the city from the suburbs. Symmetry was a primary design feature for the architects of the city when it was designed in the 1800s. Most astonishing perhaps is the impeccable planning behind the Axe Historique, a single line through the city on which some of the city’s most important monuments lie. Heading down in the opposite direction there’s a little island in the middle of the Seine in the 4th arr where Notre Dame is. One of the most charming neighborhoods, Les Marais, is also in the 4th arr. I could spend the whole day there, strolling along the cobblestone streets, in and out of the local boutique shops and trying all the international cuisines from street food vendors along the way. Then, if I’m in the mood for a drink after a long day of exploring, I’d head to any of the hip bars that fill the Latin Quarter (6th arr.).
Over the years, I’ve managed to get to know Paris fairly well, so during this last visit just a few weeks ago, I finally decided I was ready to give French another try. Conveniently, Rosetta Stone had just launched Seek and Speak, which is a learning game that I could play on the app.
The app would give me a challenge. For example: “Find 5 vegetables you’d like to cook with” or “Find 5 things that you would use to bake a cake.” As I went about my day I would search for those items. When I found one, I would take a picture of it and the app would give me the name of the item in French. I spent a whole morning in the farmers market in Les Marais running around looking for these items. In just an hour I had learned how to ask for items, how to properly pronounce each ingredient, and had enough food to make a full meal for my friends—if only I knew how to cook as well! I had fun playing, but the best part about Seek and Speak for me was that I could be learning while I was out and about. I was picking up useful words each day and I didn’t have to be sitting in a classroom. Little by little, I got more comfortable with the language because I wasn’t overthinking it. I was experiencing it.
While I have not yet lived out my fantasy of chatting with new friends over croissants at the local pâtisserie, I feel more confident and excited speaking French. When I first tried to learn it 10 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the challenges and disillusioned that I wasn’t performing as well as I expected. But I’ve discovered that I don’t need to strive for perfection every time. Making an effort to learn what you can of the local language when you’re in a foreign country opens the door for a much more meaningful visit, and I’ve found the joy in the journey. Being able to interact with language while I am out doing normal activities boosted my confidence and reminded me why we learn languages to begin with—to be part of a community.
Nathalia Ramos is a film and television actress. She has a degree in Political Science from the University of Southern California and works part-time as the Social Media Director at Berggruen Institute. She was born in Spain, speaks fluent Spanish, and is learning Vietnamese.
Although many groups make up the rich and varied tapestry of cultures that is Iran, Persian food is considered the country’s dominant cuisine. Because of Iran’s history and its proximity to the Silk Road, a trade route that ran through the heart of the region, Persian food is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern, Turkish, Russian, and Mediterranean staples. Sit at an Iranian table, and you’ll find yogurt and kabobs, but also stews and tea that hail from the east and dried fruits and nuts that are a hallmark of Greek cuisine. The languages spoken in Iran are equally eclectic. The majority of Iranians speak Persian, otherwise known as Farsi, but both Azerbaijanian and Arabic maintain a strong presence in the region.
Pistachios, saffron, and pomegranates are native to Iran and are a cornerstone of Persian food, flavoring everything from rice dishes to desserts. While Iranians don’t eat a great deal of red meat, lamb and chicken are often on the menu but balanced by other flavors. Persians believe that foods are hot or cold and meals should be carefully constructed to aid in digestion and overall health. This is why yogurt, which is purported to be a cold food, is found on every Iranian table. It’s said to balance out the richness of other hot elements of the meal, like fatty meats or warm spices, such as turmeric, and cool the palate.
Kabobs are probably the most easily recognizable Iranian food, likely because they are the national dish of Iran and Persians are rumored to have invented them. Persian nomads and shepherds needed a way to carry protein long distances in the desert, and cooking chunks of meat quickly was an easy way to transport things like duck and lamb. Kabobs are one of the only kinds of Persian food available everywhere, including cities with well-established Iranian immigrant populations like Los Angeles. But Persian food embraces a variety of other dishes that are definitely worth incorporating into your recipe repertoire.
If you were to take a seat at a Persian table in Iran, these are the kinds of foods that might greet you.
Persian tea (usually a blend of ceylon and Earl Grey or bergamot, made in a Russian samovar)
Rice dishes (chelo or tahdig which is crunchy, bottom of the pot rice)
Stewed meats or vegetables (Dishes like ghormeh sabzi-stewed spinach or Fesenjoon: meat stewed in pomegranate with walnuts)
Yogurt and yogurt-based drinks (doogh)
Dried fruits and nuts (pistachios and figs are common)
Baked goods (usually cookies featuring saffron, rosewater, pistachios, and sesame seeds)
As with most regions of the world, Persian food can vary widely depending on what area of Iran you’re exploring. On the gulf, fish replaces much of the meat while to the north, warmer stews are often on the menu. For Persians, the geography of their country and the demands of a harsh climate inspire culinary creativity.
Iran & the geography that creates Persian food
Farah Poursaid, who immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago, knows a thing or two about Persian cuisine. She grew up in Tehran but came to America during the Iranian revolution in 1979, where she joined her husband who had attended college in the states.
“The revolution happened and my husband felt that he just could not handle those people. Either you have to go to jail, or get executed, or leave. And so he left and came back. Our families knew each other.”
She worked to get a green card and within a year and a half, along with her husband who was sponsored by the university he attended, Farah became a United States citizen. She has raised her family in America but retains a craving for the Persian cuisine of her homeland.
Tehran is a very cosmopolitan metropolis and while most kinds of food are available that you would find in every city, getting to the heart of traditional Persian cuisine takes a little more effort. Farah’s mother is from Iraq but as a wealthy family, they had household staff growing up, and she didn’t cook much.
“I was around though. I watched. I knew the taste. When I came to America and got married, I went into the kitchen and started crying. I did not know what to do. So I had a cookbook with me and I would try to follow the recipe but it’s not that easy when you don’t know what you are doing.”
Eventually, her cooking improved and Farah is now admired among her friends and neighbors as a fantastic hostess. She still travels to Iran to visit her family, bringing spices and other Persian ingredients home from her yearly pilgrimage. She admits it’s been more difficult since the sanctions were enacted to bring the flavors of her homeland back to her stateside kitchen. Instead, she often brings Iranian staples from California, where they are more commonly available.
Farah believes the geography of Iran and the challenges of the region have played a considerable role in shaping the cuisine. People from the north by the Caspian Sea or those in the south that live clustered by the Persian Gulf have lots of fish in their diet. However further inland in the countryside of Iran, there isn’t much fish because, for a long time, a lack of transportation and refrigeration made fresh fish impossible. Instead, people who were landlocked relied on smoked fish, which could be salted and preserved for long journeys in the heat and was enjoyed on holidays as a special treat.
“You know, the thing is, people should understand that with each country and the food they make is where they are located and what is available. In old times it was whatever was available. It’s not like you can go to the grocery store and get whatever you want. Over there, because it’s desert, water is an issue so raising cows was always difficult. Instead they would raise sheep and lamb.”
You can see this same pattern of necessity in other cuisines. For instance in India, strong spices were thought to kill bacteria which thrived in the hot, humid climate. In Greece, olives grow plentifully and are a staple of Greek food but are mostly absent from Russian cuisine. Persians, like so many other peoples, have adapted to the world they live in and cultivated the land to create a unique flavor that, to Iranian immigrants like Farah, tastes like home.
Baghali Polo: A Persian Classic
Rice is an essential component of any Persian meal, but rather than the sticky or sweet rice Asian cuisines prefer, Iranians focus on creating fluffy, fragrant grains from basmati varieties. In this traditional Persian dish, baghali polo, the rice is infused with saffron and tossed with huge quantities of fresh dill and fava beans. It becomes the backbone of the meal, accompanied by lamb shanks seasoned with turmeric and stewed in a fragrant broth.
Traditionally, this is the sort of dish that would be left to simmer all day. However, modern technology lets us accelerate cooking time with the assistance of a pressure cooker or Instapot. After sauteeing the onion and browning the seasoned shanks, the lamb stews quietly, allowing plenty of time to get the balance of saffron-infused rice, dill, and firm fava beans just right.
One of the ingredients that might be difficult to come by is the larger quantities of the rare and sometimes expensive spice saffron required for this dish. It’s recommended you pop into a Middle Eastern store to find larger bags of saffron, then dissolve the deep red-orange strands in water before drizzling over the top of the rice. Fava beans are difficult to find fresh, but you can usually get a bag of frozen ones in most grocery stores. Just be certain to get beans that are double-peeled to avoid the crunchy outer shell that needs to be removed before cooking.
If you’re particularly ambitious, you can also put yogurt and butter in the bottom of the rice pot as it cooks to create tahdig, or bottom of the pot rice. This is a layer of basmati at the bottom of the pot that will harden and become brown and crunchy, creating a pretty dome-shaped effect when you turn it out onto a platter for serving. Accompanied by the lamb shanks and yogurt, it creates a traditional Persian dish that’ll you’d find gracing many Iranian tables.
Put two tablespoons of the oil in the pressure cooker or Insta-pot. Brown the shanks on medium heat, sprinkling with turmeric. Remove to a plate. Add the rest of the oil to the saucepan and sauté the chopped onions until lightly caramelized. Add the peppercorns, garlic and bay leaf. Cook for a minute or two. Return the shanks to the saucepan and cover with enough boiling water to cover the shanks. Bring to the boil, then braise until cooked about one hour.
Remove the shanks and put the broth through a sieve. Discard the pulp and return the shanks to the pot with the tomato puree and salt. Cover and cook on medium heat until the sauce has reduced by half and the shanks are really falling off the bones.
Rinse the rice and put in a bowl and add enough water to cover the rice by about three centimeters. Add the salt and gently stir. Let stand while you defrost the beans.
Bring a medium-sized pot of water to boil, then drain the rice and add it to the boiling water. Stir and cook until al dente, then drain.
Heat the oil in the saucepan on medium. Put yogurt in the bottom of the pot and stir quickly to avoid burning. Use a large spoon or skimmer to gently transfer 1/3 of the rice into the pot, slightly heaping it in the middle. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the fresh dill, the dried dill and 1/3 of the broad beans and repeat until all the rice, broad beans and dill are used up. Dissolves the saffron in warm water. Drizzle it across the rice and beans, then toss gently. Make three or four holes in the rice down to the bottom of the pot and deposit some butter in each well. Add a cup or two of water to begin with in order to steam the rice.
Increase the heat and cook the rice for a couple of minutes on high heat or until the side of the pot is very hot to the touch. Lower the heat and let the rice steam for approximately 30 minutes, but watch carefully to ensure you aren’t burning the bottom. Add additional water as needed.
When ready to serve, use a skimmer to gently transfer some of the white layer of rice to a plate.
Now use a spoon to lift the crunchy rice (tahdīg) from the bottom of the pot. Serve with the lamb shanks, the sauce from cooking the lamb, sprinkle with pistachios, and some yogurt. Devour and delight in all things Persian!