An Official Guide to the Unofficial Starbucks Secret Menu

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

Tired of ordering the same few drinks each time you visit Starbucks? What if you could invent your own pick-me-up at your favorite coffee shop? What if all your favorite desserts were made into beverages?

No need for a magic wand to grant this wish! Starbucks has a secret menu, unofficially created by consumers, that gives you a choice of ordering thousands of drinks you probably never even heard of. The next time you enter a Starbucks coffee shop, order your own secret recipe and sip away.

According to Starbucks’ Media Relations, “Starbucks does not have an official ‘secret menu.’ However, in addition to the beverage options listed on our menu boards, there are more than 170,000 ways baristas can customize beverages at Starbucks, including selecting from a variety of milks, syrups, coffee/espresso options, and toppings. If customers would like to order a beverage that is not listed on our menu boards, we recommend they know the recipe so that their barista can handcraft the beverage perfectly for them.”

Many secret recipes have become popular through Instagram feeds and Starbucks has even incorporated them into their “official menus” for limited times. For example, the Christmas Tree Frappuccino spread holiday cheer for a few days in December, while the Zombie Frappuccino played a tribute to the goriness of Halloween.

Check out some of the under-the-radar creations from Starbucks’ Secret Menu.

Colored for Spring

Pink Drink, via Starbucks

Referred to simply as the Pink Drink or Purple Drink, these strawberry acai refreshers with coconut milk and scoops of berries will get you in the mood for spring.

If you have seen people walking out with drinks that have pink and blue swirls or topped with glitter, that is a Unicorn Frappuccino, a jazzier version of the Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea Frappuccino, vanilla bean powder, and berry swirls.

The baby pink Raspberry Caramel Macchiato tastes as good as it looks. Have it with raspberry syrup, ice, milk, espresso, and caramel.

Drink Your Candy Bar

Twix Frappuccino, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The possibilities are endless when it comes to having your favorite candy created into a blended beverage. The candy bar-inspired Twix Frappuccino is a scrumptious mix of caramel Frappuccino, caramel syrup, hazelnut syrup, java chips, and a drizzle of mocha.

Chocolate connoisseurs will love the Ferrero Rocher Frappuccinowith double chocolate chip Frappuccino, mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and hazelnut drizzle.

Even if you can’t eat the real thing, this lactose-free Caramel Snickerdoodle Macchiato will surely perk you up. Ask for an iced soy caramel macchiato and add vanilla syrup and cinnamon dolce syrup.

Pick up an after-dinner indulgence in a Thin Mint Frappuccino, made with chocolate syrup, mint syrup, java chips, and honey mixed into a Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino.

Character Rich

Butterbeer Latte, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The Pokemon-Go inspired Pokeball Frappuccino was so popular that some Starbucks locations put it on the specials board. Made with vanilla Frappuccino, strawberries and crème Frappuccino, and topped with strawberry whipped cream, this pink-white and creamy drink is made to look like the ball’s opening.

Harry Potter fans invented the Butter Beer Latte, a milk steamer with caramel syrup, toffee nut syrup, cinnamon dolce syrup, whipped cream, and salted caramel bits. There’s also an iced version of it.

Sweeten the Deal

Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino, via The Odyssey

No need to bake your favorite dessert recipes. Just ask your barista to add sweet ingredients of your choice to a cup and drink away. Order a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with a pump or two of vanilla and hazelnut syrups, plus a whole banana to make a Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino.

Skip breakfast for a Nutella Frappuccino, a coffee Frappuccino with mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and blended whipped cream, topped with caramel drizzle.

Winter may be almost over, but you can still enjoy a Starbucks S’mores Hot Chocolate with chestnut praline syrup, whipped cream, and mocha drizzle added to a regular hot chocolate.

Add one to three pumps of raspberry syrup to a White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino to make it a Raspberry Cheesecake Mocha Frappuccino, or ask your barista to blend a biscotti into any Frappuccino for an impromptu Biscotti Frappuccino.

Drink to Your Health

Iced tea, via Starbucks

If sugary drinks are not your thing, order an Iced Matcha Latte that boasts antioxidants and has a lot less calories. Just mix matcha powder, vanilla, cinnamon, and ice.

Detox with a healthier option of blended drinks with a Superfruit Tea. The green tea with limes and strawberries packs flavor and is good for you too.

Feeling under the weather? Get the Passion Coldbuster Tea with passion tango tea, emperor cloud and mist, half steamed lemonade, half boiling water, and a bit of honey. It helps reduce inflammation, suppresses cough, boosts immunity, and relieves stress and insomnia.

There is an unofficial website dedicated to drink recipes (which is not Starbucks affiliated) where fans can post recipes and pictures of their own creations.  They recommend noting down the recipes as not all baristas will be familiar with the creative drink names.

Also, a ‘Secret Menu for Starbucks’ app available from iTunes provides a database of recipes on your fingertips. Search hot, cold, blended, and tea-based drinks, learn how to order, and rate your drinks.

~ Written for Chowhound. March 2018. 

Breakfast Casseroles from Around the World

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy food from different countries. Brighten your morning routine with these internationally inspired casserole dishes that can be made ahead. From Mexico to Nigeria, expand your breakfast culture knowledge one egg at a time.

Mexico: Huevos Rancheros

Meaning “rancher’s eggs” in Spanish, these are sunny-side up fried eggs served on lightly fried corn tortillas smothered in tomato-chilisauce, accompanied by refried beans and rice. Top with diced avocados, fresh cilantro, sour cream and salsa to make this hearty breakfast dish that will transport you to a hacienda in Mexico. Get our Huevos Rancheros recipe.

Israel: Shakshuka

Shakshuka is a staple found in the Middle East and North Africa. The name aptly means “all mixed up” as it is a blend of poached eggs, onions, bell peppers, minced meat (optional), and spicy tomato sauce flavored with smoked paprika and oregano. Melt feta cheese on top and serve the casserole with a hearty baguette or fresh warm pita bread. Get our Shakshuka recipe.

Spain: Tortilla Espanola

Fine Cooking

Found at cafes and bars across Spain and in many countries in South America, tortilla espanola can be eaten for breakfast, snack, or as tapas with a glass of wine. The vegetarian and gluten-free baked omelet is made by layering sliced potatoes with eggs, onions, and garlic. To serve, slice into pie size pieces at room temperature. Get the recipe.

Germany: Hoppel Poppel

Journal.hr

What better way to use leftovers than to toss them into a breakfast casserole? Hoppel poppel is a traditional breakfast/ supper casserole from Berlin which includes meat, potatoes, onions, and cheese, flavored with heavy cream, dill, salt, and pepper. Feel free to use whatever you have in the fridge—cooked meat, bacon, salami, or even hamburgers. Get the recipe.

Portugal: Bacalhau a Bras

Melepimenta

Travel to the Iberian Peninsula through Portuguese comfort food. Salted cod is the national dish of Portugal and it shows up at breakfast time too. Soak dried cod in cold water overnight and layer the casserole with fried shredded potatoes, onions, black olives, garlic, and beaten eggs. Get the recipe.

France: Oeufs au Plat Bressanne

Coley Cooks

Maybe you haven’t made it to the Alpine region of France yet, but you can still brag about your talents when it comes to French cooking. The countryside version of eggs benedict baked with runny eggs makes for great presentation. Fry pieces of toast in butter, add heavy cream seasoned with garlic, tarragon or chives, carefully top the eggs, and bake until the egg whites are firm. Get the recipe.

Pakistan: Khagina

Spice Spoon

Known as egg bhurji in India, tukhum-bonjam in Afghanistan, and khagina in Pakistan, the stovetop scrambled eggs are delightful if you like your breakfast spicy. Cook beaten eggs with onions, tomatoes, chilies, lentils, and turmeric. Serve with chapatti (flatbread) and cardamom-spiced chai. Get the recipe.

Italy: Frittata

Frittata meaning “fried” in Italian is a crustless quiche that is cooked in a cast iron skillet. You can use leftover ingredients, any combination of vegetables, cheese and meats—the possibilities are endless. The key to making a good frittata is beating the eggs vigorously to allow for air to incorporate, and cooking them very slowly on stove top and in the oven. Get our Kale and Roasted Red Pepper Frittata recipe.

Iraq: Makhlama Lahm

This one-pot dish will satisfy the meateater in you. Saute ground lamb with onions, tomatoes, parsley, yellow curry powder, and red chili flakes, then top with soft-baked eggs. The Iraqi breakfast dish dates to the 10th century! Get the recipe.

Nigeria: Egg Stew

Nigerian Food TV

Nigerian egg stew is a staple breakfast at every home in Nigeria, especially on the weekends. Blend red bell peppers and tomatoes to make a sauce, and season with garlic and scotch bonnet for heat. For proteins, add eggs, corned beef, and fish. Serve with boiled yam, potatoes, or chunky plantains. Get the recipe.

Eat Like a Local at Atlanta Airport

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

Airport food doesn’t always have to be greasy fast food, pre-packed sandwiches, and run-of-the-mill chain restaurants. Over 100 million passengers fly through the world’s busiest Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport each year, and they have several options where they can taste local flavors. While most travelers don’t have enough time to step outside the airport and enjoy Atlanta’s eclectic food scene, they can get a pretty good glimpse of it inside the seven terminals.

Check out these local restaurants inside Atlanta airport.

Paschal’s (Atrium, A, C)

Step back in time and visit one of Atlanta’s classic restaurants since 1947. This soul food establishment is known for award-winning fried chicken, and the city location was a meeting place for key civil rights leaders and strategists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lieutenants.

Papi’s Caribbean Café (T)

Established by a Cuban refugee, the Cuban grill has a takeout counter to grab a quick ropa vieja sandwich with black beans and yucca fries. Sip on a mojito at the bar, enjoy Latin music, and pick up a fedora at the adjacent shop.

Verasano’s Pizzeria (A)

Jeff Varasano traveled the world for 10 years perfecting the art of making pizza, eventually moving from the Bronx to Atlanta and taking the local gourmet pizza niche by storm. The restaurant is consistently ranked as a top pizzeria in the nation.

Grindhouse Killer Burgers (D, T)

The local chain is rated one of Atlanta’s best for burgers and brisket chili. Build your own burger with a wide selection of toppings, or order a Hillbilly Style with pimento cheese and jalapeños, along with distinctive Georgia sides—Vidalia onion rings, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries.

Goldberg’s Bagel Company (T)

This family-run deli started serving New York style bagels in Atlanta in 1972 and has several locations around the city. Serving 32 varieties of bagels and homestyle Po’Boys, along with deli salads, stuffed cabbage, and steamed corned-beef pastrami, this is one of your classic neighborhood Jewish delis.

The Original El Taco (C, Mezzanine)

Who doesn’t like unpretentious good Mexican food while on the go? Atlanta’s neighborhood taco stand is always a big hit with travelers, offering simple and fresh Oaxaca-style tacos, big boss burritos, and spicy quesadillas for lunch and dinner.

Fresh to Order (B)

This Atlanta restaurant chain serves gourmet salads, sandwiches, and entrees at casual prices. Co-owner and South African immigrant Pierre Panos is behind the concept of healthy fast food at affordable prices, which is why F2O is one of the most popular lunch spots in the city.

The Varsity (C)

If you can’t go check out the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world in downtown Atlanta, you can still get a taste of its legendary burgers and chili dogs. Celebrating its 90th year, the family-owned chain still uses the same recipes for almost a century that even President Obama and President George H.W Bush can’t resist.

One Flew South Restaurant & Sushi Bar (E)

One Flew South is one of the few upscale dining establishments at Atlanta Airport. The cuisine is defined as “southernational,” inspired by world travels and using fresh, local ingredients. Find everything from chicken noodle soup and Korean style burgers to good quality sushi here.

Jekyll Island Seafood Company (F)

The Jekyll Island-inspired restaurant offers a taste of Georgia’s Atlantic coast with fried crawfish, buffalo shrimp, grits, fresh oysters, and seafood gumbo served with southern hospitality. The only thing missing is an ocean breeze!

Atlanta Chophouse & Brewery (Atrium)

A classic steakhouse with hearty sandwiches and salads in a casual setting. This is where you can get a fantastic prime rib served quickly. Also, have a business meeting over craft beer in one of their private rooms.

Atlanta Stillhouse (T)

Experience a bourbon flight (32 to choose from), cocktails, and whiskey at the Jim Beam (one of the best-selling bourbon brands in the world) co-owned restaurant. Pair it with Southern-style deviled eggs topped with crispy bacon, or a side of brisket.

TAP Airport (A)

Owned by local Concentrics Restaurants group, the gastropub showcases a taste of Atlanta with dishes such as buttermilk fried chicken, hot boiled peanuts, and shrimp and Logan Turnpike grits. Try local beers on tap, or relax with a porch swing peach punch.

Lotta Frutta (B)

Who says you can’t eat healthy on the road? What began as a website about fruit facts evolved into a Pan-Latin fruiteria serving Mexican-style fresh-cut fruit cups, South American-style smoothies, Cuban-inspired sandwiches, Mexican paletas (fruit popsicles), and Ecuadorian ice creams.

Piece of Cake (A)

If you are craving something sweet, head over to one of Atlanta’s legendary bakeries, Piece of Cake, for rich slices of coconut, banana, and pound cake. They also have cupcakes, brownies, cheese straw,s and cookies baked daily.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

How the World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant Has Operated for Nearly a Century

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

You know you are in the South when you hear men and women screaming “what’ll ya have, what’ll ya have?” as they move you down quickly through the line. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll be sent back to the line. Sounds like a high school cafeteria? This fast food restaurant is close to it!

With James Beard-nominated chefs, award-winning restaurants, and a myriad of international eateries, the dining scene in Atlanta has changed dramatically over the last few years. But one thing has remained constant for nearly a century—The Varsity.

The legendary hot dog stand was founded by a Georgia Tech student, Frank Gordy, in 1928. Gordy opened the first location across from Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta and called it “The Yellow Jacket” after the men’s college basketball team. As demand for his messy beef chili dogs, greasy onion rings, fried fruit pies, and frosted orange milkshakes (aka F.O.s) grew, he took the concept to Athens, Ga. and renamed it “The Varsity.”

The Varsity in downtown Atlanta is the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world, covering two city blocks. The multi-level car park can accommodate 600 cars. No one can miss the V-shaped red neon signs with a ‘50s college tailgate feel and barhops dressed in red jackets while driving past Atlanta on I-75. Inside this huge space, it is always loud and busy, as you would expect during recess. The seating downstairs is made to look like classrooms where you can enjoy your tray of burgers, fries, and drink seated at your desk.

In the 1950s and ‘60s when drive-in culture was trending, The Varsity parking lot was not just one of the best fast-food restaurants; it was a place to socialize with friends and go out on a date. “Where else would one eat in Atlanta? It is an experience, an institution!” says Robert Howarth, a semi-retired real estate professional who was a regular at The Varsity when attending Georgia Tech during the ‘70s.

The fast food chain now has seven store locations (including two at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport) and four food trucks in Georgia, and it remains family-owned and operated.

Ashley Weiser, marketing director and granddaughter of Frank Gordy, attributes their success to having great food at a great price consistently over the past 90 years. “Not much has changed over the years and that is one of the things that makes us special. We still serve the same menu items, using the same secret family recipes,” she says, referring to a plain hot dog costing $1.59 and a hamburger at $1.89. Though the menu has gone through very little changes, recent additions include triple stack bacon cheeseburgers and two salads.

While gourmet farm-to-table hamburger restaurants are popping up around the country and fried food is getting less trendy, The Varsity is serving original recipe chili-dog combos, pimento cheese sandwiches, and sweet peach iced teas. “Food trends always come and go but we remain the same and that is what people love about The Varsity. Our business remains steady no matter what new trends in food service appear because we offer delicious quality products and that will never go out of style,” says Weiser.

Even President Obama and President George H.W Bush have stopped by to eat chili dogs at The Varsity in Atlanta.

You clearly don’t come here when you’re on a diet. The biggest draw to The Varsity is nostalgia. People who grew up in metro Atlanta have been eating at The Varsity for generations. They have celebrated birthdays, shared family meals, or had their first kiss at the drive-in. Many of them come back year after year because they want to walk down memory lane and feel like a kid again. Of course, the food is good too.

Weiser recalls, “The Varsity has been part of my life as long as I can remember. I had my birthday parties there as a child, worked there in high school and have great memories of visiting my dad and grandmother at our Atlanta location while they were working. I’ve always loved The Varsity and its long history in Atlanta and how much it means to people.”

Header image courtesy of The Varsity.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

A Tuscan-American Love Story: How Cooking and Dancing Brought This Atlanta Couple Together

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

An American girl travels to Italy, meets a charming Italian man, gets married, and together they live happily ever after. It sounds like a cliché love story, right?

Well, it happened in January 2009 when Meredith Hall, a resident of Atlanta, met Luigi D’Arienzo (who goes by Gigi) during a milonga in the medieval city of Siena. Gigi and his friends hosted and attended a tango social each month held in different towns around Italy. They would often cook for 80-100 people and enjoy evenings filled with drinking local wines, dancing, and meeting new people. “The first moment I saw Meredith was emotional. I wanted to dance with her. I didn’t think of anything, I just wanted to be with her. And then it was the best dance I had ever had!” Gigi recalls.

Since then, the couple has been dancing and teaching others around them how to savor the good life with their family-run Italian café in Atlanta and curated culinary trips to Italy.

Gigi D’Arienzo, Tuscany at Your Table; photo by Alessio Medda

Tuscany at Your Table commenced as a home-based cooking school offering small groups a chance to experience regional dishes from around Italy, honing on Gigi’s background of running an agro-tourism farmhouse in Tuscany. “Each week we would tour a different region of Italy through our palates,” Gigi says, teaching Italian food lovers how to cook carbonara from Rome, chickpea soup from Tuscany, and migliaccio (ricotta cake) from Naples. Those who wanted to dive deeper into the country’s rich culture embarked on trips to Sicily and the Amalfi Coast with the young couple.

After over 100 cooking classes, the city demanded more of Gigi’s original recipes demonstrated in a southern Italian accent with his sweet wife baking crostadas by his side. They rented a storefront in the trendy Virginia-Highlands neighborhood, known for funky boutiques and notable restaurants.

More Romantic Italian

Gigi now spends his days making homemade pastas, simple sauces, and delicately layered paninis, while Meredith specializes in desserts. The menu changes daily and is based on seasonal ingredients. Soups, salads, and pastas can be bought by servings or weight to take home for dinner. There is also a storefront selling Italian imports such as olives, chocolates, wine, cheese, prosciutto, and ceramics. While there’s not much room to dine-in, Tuscany at Your Table becomes a neighborhood hangout in the evenings.

Cooking classes, wine tastings, and tango nights are what draw singles and couples into the shop. Regular customers come in each week and meet new people from the community. They bring friends and celebrate birthdays over Italian food and wine. Often, Gigi and Meredith offer an impromptu tango lesson and everyone starts dancing. Perhaps someone else will also find their lover at one of these events.

Gigi & Meredith, photo by Rosemary Calli

Food is an integral part of Gigi and Meredith’s life. Though they work together and have a newborn baby, they take time to have a romantic meal at home from time to time. Gigi prepares orange and fennel salad, champagne and strawberry risotto, and molten chocolate cake, paired with a bottle of Lamùri (meaning love) a fine ruby red wine from Sicily. “We work well together dividing our responsibilities and are compatible at home and work. Even though we are busy, we are happy!” Gigi claims and offers to share his romantic secrets at a Valentine’s day cooking class.

Keeping with Italian tradition, on Feb. 15, Tuscany at Your Table will celebrate San Faustino, or “Singles Day” as it is known in Italy, with a cooking class only for singles. Typically, unattached men and women go out for drinks, dinners, and dances in Italy as a retort to San Valentino.

When recounting her time in Italy and what led to start her business, Meredith says, “What do I not love about Italy? I love the countryside, the people, and the language. I went with the excuse of learning the language, but discovered beautiful architecture in quaint historic cities, and warm, fun-loving people. I love that the food varies from region to region and there’s so much variety. That’s ultimately what we want to share through Tuscany at Your Table here in Atlanta.”

Header image courtesy of Rosemary Calli.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.

02_18_Travel_Thali.jpg

(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.

02_18_Travel_Temple.jpg

(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.

02_18_Travel_TeaPlantation.jpg

(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!

02_18_Travel_SpiceVillage.jpg

 

(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.

02_18_Travel_TigerReserve.jpg

(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.

 

Essential Tips for Your First African Safari

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

Kenya has some of the best-preserved wildlife and to see it with your own eyes is a dream come true. As I drove in a rustic jeep through the vast expanse of the Masai Mara watching, herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and prides of lions walk past me, it feels nothing short of being in a National Geographic documentary itself.

If you are planning a visit to see the African wildlife, here are a few things to know beforehand.

When to go?

June through October are the peak seasons to visit Kenya as rainfall is minimal and temperatures are cooler. While wildlife viewing is great throughout the year, you’ll see the most animals during the great migration, an annual event where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cross the borders between Tanzania and Kenya in search of water and food.

Where to go?

If it’s your first game drive experience in Kenya, allot at least 7-10 days. International flights arrive in the capital city of Nairobi where you want to relax for a day or two after the long journey. In Nairobi, take the opportunity to learn how baby elephants are rescued at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage and kiss a giraffe at the world-famous Giraffe Center.

Head on to Naivasha, where you can see hippos from your luxury camp. This fresh water lake is also a good place to birdwatch. Walk among zebras, giraffes, and gazelles at the Crescent Island Game Park.

The Masai Mara is a 583 square-mile vast game reserve where you can spot the “Big 5” – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffaloes. Around the Mara, you can interact with the local Masai people. They often sell handmade crafts and jewelry, perform traditional dances and offer tours of their villages.

See thousands of flamingos, rhinos and more animals at Lake Nakuru National Park, then head west to President Barack Obama’s ancestral hometown, Nyang’oma Kogelo Village.

Where to stay?

There are only all-inclusive tented camp hotels (known as camps) located near game reserves ranging in luxury and price. Most of them are nicely decorated with hardwood floors, comfortable bedding and en-suite bathrooms with hot showers. There is generally no air conditioner or heater, and electricity is restricted to few hours in the night. Stay at Sekenani Camp if you want a romantic bathtub inside the tented room or follow the footsteps of the Obamas at Basecamp Masai Mara, where they stayed during a family vacation.

What to pack?

On a safari trip, it is best to pack light as you will be moving around in a jeep and staying at camps. Since you will spend a lot of time in the car, dress in comfortable camouflage and neutral color clothing that doesn’t attract the attention of animals and blends with surroundings. Layers are great to have as it can get chilly in the mornings and evenings. There are no stores in the reserve, so pack lots of insect repellant and sunscreen along with plenty of spare batteries and memory cards for the unforgettable panoramas you will take.

Who to go with?

A reputable tour operator and a knowledgeable safari guide can make or break your wildlife viewing experience. My driver/ guide, Danson Kahuria with The Village Experience is a native to Lake Nakuru. He grew up close to animals and knew where to spot them. He could predict their next move and would take us to the best spots to get close-ups. In a matter of few hours, I saw thousands of lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and more.

Kenya is perhaps the best starting point for an African wilderness getaway because everyone speaks English, the infrastructure is well developed and it is quite safe outside the cities. A visa can be obtained electronically through a simple process and there are no vaccinations required (advisable to check with CDC).

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

Abu Dhabi: The New Cultural Capital of the East you Need to Visit ASAP

For CheapOAir Miles Away. February 2018.

Abu Dhabi is the capital and second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Known primarily as an opulent business hub in the Middle East, this barren desert-turned-metropolis is not all about over-the-top hotels, gold suks, and designer shopping malls. With some of the world’s best museums, heritage sites, and year-round festivals, Abu Dhabi is emerging as a top destination for culture trippers. Here are just a few cultural experiences you shouldn’t miss out on when in Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi museum_final

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

France’s largest art museum and icon now has an extended location in Abu Dhabi (at least for the next 30 years), making it the largest art museum in the Arabian Peninsula! Focusing on universal human values, each of the 7 galleries of the Louvre showcases world civilizations, diversity of religion, travel, technology, and modern living — enough to keep you absorbed for a whole day.

Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District (expected to be completed by 2020) plans to have 8 museums, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabicontemporary arts museum, a performing arts center, and a maritime museum.

Arabic Poetry

Poetry is a big part of Arabic culture. Abu Dhabi-based reality TV show “Million’s Poet” attracted over 100 million viewers from across the world during its 8 seasons to see who is the most talented Arabic poet to take home 5 million dirhams (roughly $1.3 million) in prize money!

In its 5th season, Rooftop Rhythms is the Middle East’s longest-running poetry open mic art event. At the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Arts Center, you can watch the UAE’s most talented and noteworthy artists and poets compete. NYUAD also hosts classical music concerts, international vocalists, folk dances, and film festivals throughout the year.

How to See Dubai on a Budget

Grand Mosque

Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

With marble domes, semi-precious stone inlay pillars, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is no less in architectural splendor than the Taj Mahal. Built by the UAE’s first president Sheikh Zayed, the mosque has become an iconic symbol of the city, extending a warm welcome to visitors from all over the world. Watch the Grand Mosque lit up at night and make sure to stop at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery on premise.

Yas Island

As if there wasn’t enough events and venues around town, Abu Dhabi has an entire island dedicated to entertainment! Home to the Grand Prix racetrack (which hosted the 2017 Formula 1 race), 4DX theaters, Ferrari World, and concert arenas, Yas Island is a one-stop entertainment destination for the entire family. The largest open-air venue in the Middle East, du Arena hosts street food markets, winter carnival, Oktoberfest, Broadway musicals, and performances by artists from Cairo to Harlem.

Abu Dhabi Food Festival

arabic food at the food festival, abu dhabi

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

For 17 days in December, residents and visitors engage in a nonstop eating frenzy at restaurants, food fairs, farmer’s markets, and streets around the city. The Abu Dhabi Food Festival is the best opportunity to taste the diverse cuisine found in the city, be it a chef-tasting menu prepared by Italian chefs at Enrico & Friends, dinner at a secret location with 1000 other diners, or a traditional Emirati brunch at Al Fanar.

Al Fresco Movies

Emiratis love to watch movies outdoors and there are several movie theaters, parks, beaches and hotel rooftops offering al fresco screenings. Grab a cocktail by the pool, enjoy the star-studded sky and watch your favorite flick on the big screen. Veteran film experts introduce independent movies and conduct Q&A sessions at changing locations.

Pop-up Dinners

abu dhabi_40Mule

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Fancy an upscale dinner with your friends with conversational pieces around? 40Mule is a new pop-up dining concept that brings international chefs to Abu Dhabi for curated experiences in unusual settings, such as shipyards, museums, and warehouses. Watch Michelin-star chefs cook 7-course meals on gas burners and network with fellow foodies from all walks of life.

Arabic Sports

While Abu Dhabi is home to some of the flashiest golf clubs, race car tracks and polo clubs, it is also a good place to watch traditional Middle Eastern sports such as camel racing, falconry, hunting with saluki dogs, and dhow (sailboat) racing. Take a tour of the world’s largest falcon hospital to learn about how pet falcons are trained and cared for at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, or watch young sailors race traditional pearl diving boats at the Marwah and Abu Al Abyad Traditional Dow Sailing Races.

~Written For CheapOAir Miles Away. February 2018.

‘Refugee Cookies’: How a Syrian Woman and Her Family Turned Hardship Into a ‘Sweet, Sweet’ Business

For Chowhound. January 2018. 

Khaled and Ruwaida had a deep-rooted life back in Damascus, Syria. They owned two apartments and a few electronic shops. Khaled worked, while Ruwaida took care of their two kids. But political unrest forced them to leave their home country and walk across to Jordan, where they lived as refugees for four years. They lost their assets, sold most of their possessions for survival, and arrived in the United States with almost nothing. One of the few things they could carry with them—a wooden cookie mold from Syria that belonged to Ruwaida’s mother and grandmother—became the foundation of their future.

Once the family arrived in Georgia in 2016, refugee resettlement organization New American Pathways and Holy Trinity Parish helped them settle in. Initially, they relied on the help of the community for food and shelter. Amanda Avutu, one of the volunteers who has now become a close friend of the family, says, “I wanted to help stock their kitchen for them when they arrived at their new apartment but was totally lost! I went with an arbitrary shopping list to an Indian grocery store not really knowing what Syrians eat,” referring to how little knowledge she had of the country’s cuisine.

Not knowing English and having no transferable working skills, Khaled turned to minimum wage work, while Ruwaida baked cookies for her neighbors, the only way she could say “thank you” for their generosity. Little did she realize; her small sweet tokens would lead her to start her very own business and support her family.

Photo by David Naugle

The idea of “Sweet, Sweet Syria” was birthed during a neighborhood music festival where Ruwaida sold 45 dozen cookies in three hours from a friend’s porch. “Refugee cookies! Refugee cookies!” her 10-year old son yelled from the porch. It was the first time Ruwaida (now 29) had received money for her work and it took some getting used to the idea of being the first Arabic businesswoman in her family. “I was so excited and my kids seemed so proud of me” she says, smiling shyly.

“We Syrians think about food since the time we wake up,” Ruwaida says, and recalls fond food memories of her home country. She has been baking traditional Mamool cookies since she was 12 years old. Her mother taught her how to make the shortbread dough, season it with orange and rose water, and stuff it with dates, pistachios, chocolates, and coconut. The recipe has passed on through generations. It’s a 10-step labor intensive process and good quality ingredients are crucial. The cookies are delicate, flavorful, yet not too sweet.

Photo by David Naugle

“Do you want to work?” Ruwaida’s new American friends asked, and sought permission from her husband to be sensitive to her conservative cultural background. He immediately said, “Yes, but only in the house.” With much help from a Google translator, her advisors helped set up her website, took her for English language lessons, and enrolled her in a business accelerator program.

Since they did not have an outlet to sell, Avutu would sit at a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with customers and deliver the cookies they ordered through word of mouth. “I felt like a smuggler of cookies!” she laughs. The owner noticed this and signed up for a weekly order and gave Avutu a corner at the shop to meet with customers.

Next, they bought a tent, table, and sandwich board and headed to the farmers markets. The entire family was positively motivated when they saw people from all walks of life enjoying their homemade delights. They started receiving messages from people across the country who were eager to try the cookies, and they shipped the cookies via UPS.

Photo by David Naugle

Ruwaida’s friends also started a crowdfunding campaign to help her rent a commercial kitchen. She now supplies cookies to local coffee shops and farmers markets in Atlanta, and takes online orders ($10 per dozen). Her husband/sous chef assists in running private Syrian dinners at friends’ homes that serve as a place for cross cultural exchanges. The kids get a chance to see other American homes and share their own backgrounds.

In less than two years since their move to the US, Khaled and Ruwaida are loving their new entrepreneurial lives and eventually want to open a small brick and mortar Syrian restaurant.

“The cookies are not sweet themselves,” Ruwaida explains. The sweetness she is referring to is the recollections she has of Syria. She wants people who taste her cookies to have a positive experience, and not associate the country with only death and destruction. So, she named her business “Sweet, Sweet Syria.”

Header image courtesy of Sweet, Sweet Syria.

Written for Chowhound. January 2018. 

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018.