Saturday, June 30, 2007

Puerto Rico 2 of 3: the food post

As soon as we got to our hotel in San Juan, I had good omens that I would be able to eat well on this trip. The first indicator was the beautiful basket of fresh cold fruit that greeted us in our room. The second and better indicator was the fact that our hotel gave us a list of all the vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants in Puerto Rico as soon as we checked in! We had mentioned as we reserved the hotel that I was vegan, and they had taken the time to print the list for us! I was really touched- and amazed that there would be so many veggie options. But a funny thing happened- I hardly got to eat at any of the restaurants on my list (even though I took the list with me wherever we went). For whatever reason, because they were casual joints or located around the university, many of the vegetarian cafes in San Juan closed after lunch. Daiku and I would usually be out during the day, seeing different towns, and only be back in San Juan at night.

However, I did not miss out on good food, as the following photos will show:

On the drive east from San Juan to Fajardo, I noticed this health food market, one of many I would see all over the island. I stopped in and found a package of giant locally baked, vegan cinnamon buns made with whole wheat flour. The package of 4 only cost $2 and fed me for breakfast and snacks over the next two days!

Everywhere we went on the island, I saw giant mango trees brimming with fruit. The sight made me so happy- I'd never seen a mango tree in my life! Unfortunately, even though it's a fantasy of mine, I couldn't climb any of these trees because they were way too tall, and often located on private property. It was crazy to see mangoes rotting underneath them, though.

In Fajardo, we had secured a ride from a fisherman on his boat to take us to and from the island of Icacos where we spent the afternoon snorkeling. When we got back to land, we noticed a man bringing a huge bucket of mangoes (perhaps from his tree) to a group of fisherman. I became mesmerized by the sight of so many mangoes, and how the men were eating them right out of hand. Well, I must have been staring because one of the men gestured to Daiku and asked him if he'd like some mangoes. Before we knew it, they had given us 5! I couldn't believe my eyes, or their generosity. These mangoes also provided me with breakfast for the duration of our trip.

The best place to eat in Puerto Rico, if you are not vegan and if you want casual, authentic food, is one of the many purveyors of "comidas criollas" - the local, indigenous cuisine of Puerto Rico that features plenty of familiar dishes involving rice, beans, plantains, and - meat. I would notice produce trucks like the one above delivering to these joints, so that I knew that if nothing else, I could find plenty of plantains there. And I was right- throughout the week I ate plantains in every form imaginable (sweet (amarillos), mashed (mangu), fried (tostones), balls (bollitas), chips, etc.) They are very delicious and filling- I'm lucky that I love plantains, though!

I had to remember that in Puerto Rico with coffee, as in England with tea, you often get it with milk unless you expressly mention that you don't want it. Here is a typical photo of cafe sin leche for me, and cafe con leche for Daiku. On really hot days, we would also ask for some ice to make our own gonzo iced coffees with. I noticed that even the smallest establishments in Puerto Rico tended to have really fancy espresso machines, so that most of the coffee we drank there was excellent in flavor and quality. (It doesn't hurt that they grow their own coffee beans on the island, either!)

Yet another tree brimming with tropical fruit- this time giant papayas.

As happy as I was with all the abundant produce, though, I was still sad that I wouldn't get to try famous Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo (plantains mashed with garlic and often with pork). Until a very happy set of accidents made us end up at A Pedir de Boca, a tapas restaurant in San Juan. After a long and tiring day's drive to the west and south of the island, Daiku and I found ourselves looking for dinner at night. With our handy list in hand, we found not one, but two vegan restaurants, but they were both closed! Dejected and hungry, we walked around until we saw this restaurant. We decided to go in, since it is usually easy to find veg options on a tapas menu. I was trying to decide between a hummus platter and some samosas and told the waiter that I was looking for vegetarian foods. "Oh, you are vegetarian?" He asked. "Let me see if there's any tofu in the kitchen- maybe the chef can prepare something special for you." Within a few moments, I was told that the chef would prepare me vegetarian mofongo with tofu- I was ecstatic!

The result was stunning and delicious- the mashed plantains flavorful, the tofu expertly prepared to be crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, and the vegetables tangy and artfully arranged on a garlic/turmeric sauce. The chef personally came to check on us and ask how we were liking our dinner, and as we were leaving, the waiter told us to come back any time, they would always be willing to make us something vegetarian that was not on the menu. Could it have been any nicer?

Above are two photos from the Rio Piedras market in downtown San Juan. I was really excited to go and sure enough saw mountains and mountains of produce, some that I couldn't even identify. It was overwhelming and also a little sad, knowing that with no kitchen and no way to bring back fresh foods to the mainland, I couldn't really sample most of it.

Instead we grabbed some tropical juices and walked around the indoor marketplace looking for something to eat. I was preparing myself for more plantains, when I noticed Daiku having a conversation with a woman behind the counter in the above food stall. A few moments later, she disappeared. Daiku told me that when he has asked her if they had any food without meat, she had replied that they didn't, but she knew where she could find some. About 5 minutes later, she reappeared with a giant tray of food:

After a long hot day of walking, taking buses, and trying not to get lost, this was the best meal we could ask for. The tray held a salad, some sweet plantains and yucca (in the back), a bowl of pasta, and a bowl of mashed plantains (in the front). (Sorry for the poor-quality picture which also shows our juices and the bunch of quenepas that we had picked up from the fruit vendors, the fluorescent lighting made it difficult). Once again, I was blown away by the kindness of the food vendor, who, like the men with the mangoes and the waiter at the tapas restaurant, had made a hungry Bazu very happy. And, the whole tray of food only cost $6- now that's how to eat!

Speaking of quenepas, they were new to me- and so yummy! They look like limes, but when you crack open the skin, a juicy, tangy and gooey inside is revealed that you can slurp up. Be careful, though, they have large slippery seeds!

On our final night in Puerto Rico, as we walked around Old San Juan, I finally got to try one of the restaurants on the list that I'd been carrying around all week! Cafe Berlin is a quirky and vegetarian-friendly place on the Plaza Colon, featuring a varied and exciting menu. After much deliberation, I ordered the vegan Philly cheese-steak sandwich:

A big seitan patty and some grilled peppers and onions, served on a sandwich with tomatoes, sprouts, red onions, and lettuce. Not exactly Puerto Rican, but a delicious and fun way to end my stay at the island.

So as you can see, eating vegan in Puerto Rico wasn't just easy, it was enjoyable for me! Because of the kindness of strangers, who tried their best to decipher our broken Spanish, we got to sample a wide array of dishes- some traditional, some innovative, and all delicious. Toss that with some fresh tropical fruit, and you've got yourself quite a trip.

The only thing I regret is that I didn't get to meet up with Johanna (of Tropical Vegetarian Family fame) and sample some of her fantastic home-cooking! Even though we tried to make plans, we never made it to her hometown. If you're reading this Johanna, lamentamos no haberte visto!


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Puerto Rico, Part 1 of 3

I'm home- finally! After 3 weeks of being on the road, I'm back and ready to share my trip to Puerto Rico with all of you. As usual, there is so much to say, so I'll let the photographs do most of the talking. I'm dividing my Puerto Rico reporting into 3 posts: places and things to see and do, things to eat (of course!), and fun things, people, and creatures to see.

So without further ado, here are some images from my week in Puerto Rico, where I... to relax on the beach and enjoy colorful sunsets on the beach in the Isla Verde neighborhood of San Juan...

...visit the east coast town of Fajardo from where we took a boat to...

...the nearly deserted island of Icacos for some snorkeling and coral reef marveling...

...see children enjoying the waterfall at...

... El Yunque rain forest and national park (my first visit to a rain forest!)...

...then head west and visit the awe-inspiring caves (Las Cavernas del Río Camuy) south of the town of Arecibo...

...where I got to drink from the fresh waters of the fountain of youth (dear god, I hope it is!), and where Daiku and I met an elderly gentleman who told us that no visit to Puerto Rico would be complete without seeing the town of Ponce on the southern coast... we drove through windy mountain roads from north to south (all the while seeing stunning views such as the above photo)...

...stopping along the way to see the Arecibo observatory, home of the biggest single-dish telescope in the world (and part of SETI, for all the astronomy geeks/Carl Sagan fans out there!)... get to beautiful Ponce, centuries-old town filled with grand architecture...

...where we got to see and touch the Caribbean sea for the first time- woo hoo!...

...and then back to Old San Juan, home to more stunning architecture, beautifully colored houses, tons of civic monuments and statues...

...and of course, the remains of the Fort San Felipe del Morro, a nearly 500 year-old reminder of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Whew! Tune in tomorrow for a food round-up of Puerto Rico- being vegan turned out to be easier than I thought there, and there were a few surprises along the road.


Friday, June 22, 2007

The beach at Isla Verde, San Juan, Puerto Rico


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Greetings from St. Louis

Hi Everybody,

I am done with AP grading and back in Virginia. (For everyone who asked, yes, I was fair when grading the AP exams! There were about 150 of us reading, and everyone's test had at least 9 different readers, so you can rest assured that the students fared well.) Tomorrow, Daiku and I leave for Puerto Rico! I am so excited, because I have never been to PR before, but I want to learn more about the food, culture, history, natural environment... everything.

Before I leave, however, I leave you with some wonderful pictures that Daiku brought back from his trip to St. Louis. These are all from the hip, diverse, and up-and-coming neighborhood of Soulard. As you can see from the above photo, Soulard is home to a wonderful, 228 year-old farmer's market.

...that features fantastic produce (Daiku said these cherries were only $1.90/lb.!),

...fresh artisanal pasta,

... a bakery specializing in all-natural hand-made bread,

...and my all-time favorite, pickles! If you enlarge the above photo, you'll see the spice center, from which you can get the world's best spicy bread-and-butter pickles. I think most Americans are familiar with bread-and-butter pickles, but for readers who are not, these are sweet and savory pickles that perfectly complement sandwiches and barbequed foods. I always chop these extra spicy pickles up and put them in my potato salad and cole slaw- yum!

Finally, here are two shots of a community garden in Soulard, near Daiku's sister's house. This garden features individual plots as well as a communal vegetable patch that everyone tends and shares.

If any of you ever get a chance to visit St. Louis, you must check out Soulard. You'll find the market and the garden, but also a whole lot of restaurants, bars, health food markets, and independent stores. The people are wonderful and there's a real neighborhood vibe.

Tomorrow, Puerto Rico. I'll be there for a week and probably won't get to write much, but I might send photos to the blog. So bear with me if you see some random shots popping up on this site for the next few days! Have a wonderful week everyone!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

eat, grade, repeat

Hello to everybody from beautiful New Jersey! I'm here at the College of New Jersey for a week, reading AP art history exams from high school students all around the country. The schedule is pretty full (work from 8-4:30 for 6 days) and I don't have my computer with me, so I don't get to blog (or see other blogs!) a lot.

One thing they realize here is that for someone to be able to read hundreds and hundreds of high school essays, you have to feed them well. So the above mobile phone photo is an example of how I get to eat at the college cafeteria. This was today's lunch: a big salad of mixed greens, kidney beans, broccoli, blueberries, oranges, onions, tofu, and shredded carrot. There is also some tomoatoes, cucumbers, and hummus that are not visible. I used oil and vinegar for dressing. On the side is a fruit plate with watermelon, blackberries, and honeydew. Also, a slice of rye bread.

Here is a list of some other fun vegan foods I've discovered in the cafeteria:

  • veggie chili, chock full of beans
  • a tomato basil soup
  • smart balance margarine (the kind with no dairy!)
  • tabbouleh
  • Nutter-Butter cookies (ok, not exactly health food... but no animal ingredients that I know of)

There- I feel I have fulfilled my food blogging obligations!

So that is basically my day: eat, grade, repeat. It's fun, but exhausting. I try not to go crazy with caffeine, but I have to have some tea and coffee-otherwise I find myself dozing off while reading the 100th essay about the exact same painting!

Right now, Daiku is in St. Louis, visiting family. He promises me that he's taking interesting pictures, so hopefully by this weekend, we'll have some things to blog about. I can't wait to get home, so I can catch up on all your blogs! I hope everyone is having a fantastic time in blogland.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant

As you might have gathered from my last few posts, Daiku and I are currently traveling. Right now, we are at my mom's house in northern Virginia. The past week was hectic for us, trying to pack up and close up the house for 3 weeks, preparing our travel-hating cats for a road-trip, and also throwing a party and trying to finish up all the food in our house. Now that everything is settled, I had time to blog, which explains the 6 (count 'em, SIX!) posts that have appeared mysteriously just today.

So while we have been here in Virginia, we finally got a chance to try Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant, about which I had heard great things! My mom also wanted to try this place and had been waiting until Daiku and I were in town, so one afternoon, we headed over. I have to admit, I was a little afraid of how my mom would react to such "hard-core" vegan foods, but I am happy to report that we all loved the food! (I don't know why I'm so neurotic, but I feel like all vegan foods have to "represent" and be really good, or someone will go away with a bad impression of veganism and never want to try anything again!)

The menu is pretty huge- and I had lots of options- macrobiotic? Raw? Sushi? Rice? Noodles? Pasta with tomato sauce? They had it all. In the end, I decided to go with a "normal" choice (again, with attention to what my mom might like) and ordered the grilled chicken sandwich which came with lettuce, jicama, tomato, a savory red tomato and vegetable sauce, and a small mixed green salad on the side. This turned out to be a yummy choice.

I also love this appetizer, teriyake eel, as did everyone else. As you might know, I am endlessly fascinated with faux meats- how certain chefs and restaurants excel at recreating the taste and texture of flesh, in cruelty-free form. These eel didn't exactly taste like the eel I used to order in Japanese restaurants, but they were very fish-like, with the help of seaweed. The flaky meaty texture fascinated my mom, who is a big fan of fish. Small steps...

For his entree, Daiku ordered the Thai Tom Yam (spicy & sour) & basil fried rice. This huge dish came loaded with veggies such as edamame and carrots, and little cubes of soy protein. The sour flavor was unique and almost startling. My mom and Daiku liked this dish more than I did, but even I had to admit that the flavor was new to me.

My brave mother ordered the "Adventures in Tempeh Land" even though she had never tried tempeh before. Sunflower's organic multi-grain tempeh, however, was nothing to fear and we all loved the tempeh and veggies in the thick curry sauce, that came with a side of brown rice.

Even though we were stuffed, we all decided to share a dessert, a chance to try vegan desserts should never be passed up!

We settled on the lemon tofu cheese pie. Once again, I was a little nervous- a vegan cheesecake can either be watery, gray and flaovrless, or it can be marvelous. Fortunately, this happened to be marvelous. Instead of trying to imitate a cheesecake, they had instead made this intriguing concoction using tahini, cashews, and pine nuts, served over a lemon sauce. It was not too sweet, but had a winning flavor.

The service at Sunflower was a bit wonky- my sandwich was brought out way before the appetizer or any of the other entrees, and we had to ask for knives and spoons (it's difficult to eat a liquid curry with a fork!) but the crowd-pleasing food and friendly staff made up for this.

I really appreciate my mom for taking us to dinner and being so open-minded (open-palated?)
and I really appreciate Sunflower Restaurant for giving such a great impression of vegan food!

Restaurant Info: (2 locations)

2531 Chain Bridge Road
Vienna, VA 22181
11:30 am - 10:00 pm
12:00 noon - 10:00 pm
TEL: (703) 319-3888
FAX: (703) 242-7331

6304 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22044
11:30 am - 10:00 pm
12:00 noon - 10:00 pm
TEL: (703) 237-3888
FAX: (703) 237-3887