Navigating in the world on your own is never easy. Doing so in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language adds another degree of difficulty. So traveling in Israel on my own was a bit of a challenge, shall we say.
I planned to leave Jerusalem to visit the Dead Sea and watch the sun rise over Masada. I would take the bus from the city to my hostel in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t have an exact plan of how to get from the bus stop to my hostel. But, I’m pretty resourceful and knew I would be able to figure it out. So I hopped on the bus headed to the Dead Sea.
Before I got on the big green Egged bus, I put my backpack in the undercarriage compartment. I left the daypack attached, which had my passport and laptop in it. I thought about unzipping it and taking it on the bus, but I was lazy and decided to leave it. I wasn’t going to need them on the bus, and it didn’t have my money in it. And, I wasn’t too concerned that someone would run off with my stuff.
When I got on the bus I asked the driver which stop I should get off at for Ein Gedi. He mumbled something back to me. I couldn’t understand what he said so I asked if he could call it out when he reached my stop and he grumbled back “yes.”
I found my seat and sat down to write in my journal. The bus schedule said it should take about an hour and 15 minutes to get to my stop. Around that time I started looking outside for signs that meant I was close to my destination. I saw things saying Dead Sea. I was excited, I had been looking forward to this part of my trip most of all.
The bus driver called out for me. I asked him if this is my stop. He said “yes.” I tried to clarify with him where I needed to go after I got off the bus because it was completely dark outside. He was not very helpful and rushed me off the bus as he grumbled. Thanks for the hospitality, buddy.
As I was rushed off, I stepped off the bus and before I could turn back and say anything to him he pulled off. I was stunned. It took me a second to react because I thought “What happened?” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks…
OH MY GOD! MY BACKPACK!!!!!!
The bus driver pulled off and he had my backpack still on the bus. My heart raced, I was freaking out! What do I do now? I was in the middle of no where. I looked around me and all I saw was the beach and the road and hills. There’s no other buses or cars around, there’s nothing here. FML.
I didn’t have a phone so I started walking up the road looking for help. I saw a little snack bar on the beach so I ran over and asked if they had a phone. They did have a phone. I’m saved! But they didn’t know the number for the bus company and don’t have internet access to look it up. Damn. I asked if they know where the bus is going — they say no. So I was back to square one.
The guy at the snack bar tried to reassure me that things would be okay. He said my stuff would be left in a lost and found, but it didn’t make me feel any better in the here and now. I looked around the beach and wondered how to find the way to my hostel. To add insult to injury, the bus driver dropped me off at the wrong stop. I had no idea how to get to my hostel, and exasperation was starting to kick in.
Think Natasha, think. What could I do? Well, maybe the bus driver had to come back the same way to go back to Jerusalem? So I stood by the side of the road and waited…and waited…and waited.
Every time I saw bright lights heading down the hill towards me I got hopeful, and then it was a car or truck. Never a bus.
Then I finally saw a bus!! I waved it down desperately with all the energy I could muster. The driver slowed down and I could immediately see it was not an Egged bus, but a regular coach bus. I still got him to stop and told him my story. I asked if he knew how I may find the bus. He shook his head, wished me well and drove off.
I was completely distraught and panicked.
Should I try to hitchhike my way up the hill? I could, but where would I ask them to take me? And who knows what kind of creepers will pick up a single woman on the side of the street at night. Not a good idea, I decide.
My blood coursed, and I racked my brain. That’s when I felt my face get hot and the tears started rolling down my face.
I tried to eat my leftover food to distract myself and stop the emotional breakdown. All I have to do is figure this out, I told myself. Sitting on that bench on the side of the road in Ein Gedi was one of the times traveling solo felt lonely.
I saw the lights of a bus coming down the hill again and I forced myself to get up and wave it down. It was that same driver again. This time his bus was empty and he stopped to hear my whole story. He looked sorry for me, and offered to give me a ride up to the nature reserve he worked for so I could use the phone and get help.
This felt like the first break I’d been able to catch all day. Being inside the bus made me feel like my luck was going to turn around. Unfortunately, we got to the office and everything was closed. At that point I had no backpack, no prospects and no where to sleep.
My bus driving friend, Rahim, asked if I had a place to stay and I told him that I didn’t. He looked at me and said “Come stay with me, I have an extra bed you can use and in the morning I will help you find your bus.”
Wait, what? As an American, I’m not used to generous acts of hospitality from strangers. I was nervous about saying “yes” to spending the night with a stranger. But as a shelterless vagabond, I was not in any place to decline. We got back on the bus and he drove us to the cabins where the drivers stay.
Rahim had a trundle bed and pulled out the bottom section for me and offered me his blanket. I laid down in bed with my mind racing, sitting back and questioning everything I’d done that day. I asked myself, “how did I get into this predicament?” But all the while a little piece of me was so thankful to be in a bed and not sleeping outside on the beach in the cold.
True to his word, in the morning Rahim tried to help me track down my backpack. He called his friends that worked for Egged to ask for help and we searched online for any information we could find. In the midst of all that he showed me pictures of his wife and daughter back home. We made a semi-successful effort to communicate using Google Translate. Going back and forth between Arabic and English.
Sadly, the Egged hotline wasn’t open yet and my friend had to go to work. He suggested I go to the nature reserve offices to wait to use their phone. As I walked over I saw a slew of green Egged busses outside the nature reserve office. For a moment, my heart leapt for joy. Maybe one of these is mine!! Hallelujah!
Before I went inside I waited around for the drivers to return, one by one, the drivers show up. But none of them are mine. Once again my hope was crushed.
After 9:00 a.m. I walked into the office and started from scratch. I explained my entire ordeal to the kind woman that worked there. She helped me dial the number, but even though Egged was supposed to be open, I still got an automated message. Ughhhhh!! Dammit! I just want my backpack back!!!
Thirty minutes later we tried to call again and still no luck. The office manager could tell I was frustrated and on the verge of tears again. She offered to continue calling the hotline. And, to get my mind off this sad situation she gave me a ticket for free admission into the nature reserve.
I tried to be grateful but all I could think was: Animals, for real? That’s supposed to make this better? I’m in the middle of a three month backpacking trip and now I have no passport, and animals are supposed to make this all go away??? But of course, I don’t say any of that. I said thank you and walked outside to go see the damn animals.
Okay, fine, some of the animals were kind of cute. Especially the ones that looked like the dramatic chipmunk.
When I got back from the nature reserve I sat outside the office in a chair and waited. After an hour or two the office manager came and said to me, “I have some good news and some bad news.” I took a deep breath, but had no idea what this could mean. She said: “They have found your backpack, but the police — — it up.”
They found my backpack! Oh my god! Yes! But what was that part, what did the police do? She said it fast and I couldn’t quite catch it with her accent. She repeated herself: “The police — — it up, like with a bomb, goes boom!” And she said this as she made an explosion motion with her hands…
They blew up my backpack…they blew up my backpack…they blew up my backpack…
I can’t even think straight. What does she mean they blew up my backpack? Why?!?!? What about all my stuff!!! My Macbook, my clothes, my passport!!! I tried to listen as she explained. She said it’s not that bad, most of my things survived, maybe an item or two may have a hole in it.
Huh? What are you saying?? How did this happen???
Well here’s the story: When the driver got back to the station last night he found my bag still on the bus. He told his supervisor about it. The supervisor called it in to the police, because this is Israel and they take this ish for serious. They never know if something is an innocent backpack or a tragedy waiting to happen. So the police came and took the backpack. They called around to the local hostels to see if a bag was reported missing. Since none of the hostels said a bag was missing their protocol was to detonate the bag to ensure it’s not a bomb. And that’s how my bag got bombed by the Israeli police.
Anywhere else in the world, literally almost anywhere in the world, my backpack would have survived last night unscathed. It would have gotten tossed in a lost and found pile and waited for me to come get it. But no. I was in Israel…
I spent the next two hours waiting to take a shuttle to the police station.
I walked into the police station and looked right past the officer at the desk — I saw my stuff in two garbage bags. All my clothes, my toiletries, everything. I explained who I was and the officer brought me back to retrieve my stuff and make sure everything was there.
I sat on the floor and started to assess the damage. First thing I noticed, my laptop. It’s ruined. I can’t even describe the damage. The metal is dented and bent. The screen is completely cracked to hell. There’s purples and greens and all sorts of colors that aren’t supposed to be there streaked across the screen. My passport and clothes were fine, no holes. One blessing. Then I saw my backpack and my daypack….
My backpack, the one I needed to get around the world for the next two months…it’s busted to smithereens. There was a huge gash down the side of the bag. The back panel and padding on the daypack — scorched and falling apart. I thought: “What am I going to do? How am I supposed to backpack with this?”
My face got hot again and the tears flooded down my face. Sitting there with my blown up bag was almost worst than when I didn’t have it at all. At least then, in my head, it was still a backpack and not this pile of shards.
That’s when I heard a voice yell, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WHY ARE YOU CRYING?” I looked up at the officer, speechless. I thought, are you kidding me, do you not see the mess I’m sitting in front of? But he didn’t end there. He yelled, “YOU HAVE NO REASON TO BE CRYING, YOU STILL HAVE YOUR LIFE!”
Oh wow, I had no idea what to do with that reasoning. These officers might need some sensitivity training. The loud officer asked if all my stuff was there and then handed me some paperwork to sign. I moved past my crying phase to being angry as hell at these officers for 1.) Blowing up my damn backpack and 2.) Scolding me for crying about it. Eat a dick, guy.
But a nicer officer came along and asked if I needed anything, thank you for having a heart. I ended up heading to the mall in the back of a cop car to pick up a new bag. I definitely didn’t budget that into my trip. Sigh. My officer with a heart tried to ask for a discount from the shop owner. I walked out of the shop with an enormous backpack that looked like I was smuggling a hippo. But I had a backpack.
Back into the cop car, the officers drove me over to the bus station to catch the bus back to Jerusalem. The bus driver stood next to the side of the bus and reached his hand out to offer to take my bag. My heart raced, my eyes got wide and shook my head so aggressively I smacked myself with my hair.
I was like a mother bear guarding my cub. “Get away from my backpack!!” I rushed away, hopped on the bus and sat down with a sign of relief.
Nearly every town has their own holiday charm, but some places really know how to DO Christmas. I’m talking over the top celebrations, beautiful natural scenery, eye-catching displays, and the true spirit of Christmas. Christmas is just around the corner and if you’re looking to do it up big this year, I’ve got just what you need. These are the world’s best places to celebrate Christmas.
Lapland is the home of Santa Claus Village aka Christmas HQ. Located just north of the Arctic Circle, the city offers tons of festive ways to celebrate. You can enroll in Elf School, make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, or take a calligraphy class so you can write your Christmas list with a traditional quill. I mean, what more could you want?
If you really want to live like a Claus you can stay in the Arctic Snow Hotel. The hotel is actually made entirely from snow and ice! There are also saunas and hot tubs so you don’t freeze your tush off.
To top it all off, you can visit the reindeer and baby polar bears at the Ranua Zoo or spend the night gazing at the Northern Lights.
Zurich is the most picture-perfect place to spend Christmas. The mountains, snow and cobbled streets feel like something out of a fairytale. Plus, the centerpiece of town is a Christmas tree literally covered in Swarovski crystals, which looks like something out of Frozen.
The city comes to life with magical Christkindlimarkts (Christmas markets) every year. The Christmas market at Zurich Main Station is Europe’s largest covered market. Inside you’ll find a huge choice of gifts with all the mulled wine and fondue you can eat.
If you love Christmas music, you’ll be in for a treat. Check out the singing Christmas tree that comes alive on Werdmuhleplatz. On a stage covered in lights, a choir of local children will serenade you with Christmas carols.
Families can also enjoy ice skating rings, a Christmas circus or a public dipped candle-making event.
New York, New York
If you want to spend Christmas in the city, there’s no better place to do it than New York. The lights of the skyline twinkle brightly all night long like the whole city is ablaze with holiday fever. It’s also been the star in many Christmas flicks from “Miracle on 34th Street” to “Elf.”
While you’re in the city check out Rockefeller Center for the famously gigantic Christmas tree and the ice rink. They are sure to get you in the spirit. And if you’ve got the coin you can head to Radio City for the annual Christmas Spectacular starring the Rockettes. And if you’re on a budget, spend the evening on a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park. There’s nothing more classic.
Columbus Circle hosts a Holiday Market with tons of vendors selling everything you need for everyone on your list. Department stores like Macy’s set up impressive Christmas window displays. So even if you can’t drop big money you can still window shop ’till you drop.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Okay, this one may sound a bit surprising at first but San Juan is where it’s at. For real. Before, during and after Christmas the city is celebrating with food, family and nonstop parties.
The festivities start off with a glass of coquito, a rum and coconut drink similar to eggnog. In Old San Juan they’re serving up seasonal Puerto Rican specialties like pasteles, a meat and spice-filled pastry, and pernil, a slow-roasted marinated pork shoulder served around the holidays.
The best part is the celebrating continues through January with the observance of Three Kings Day. Plus, you get to do all of this while catching a tan on the beach!
Bethlehem, West Bank
If you want to get in touch with the original meaning of Christmas, you should make a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace. Thousands of people from around the world gather together in the biblical town to observe the holiday.
You can hear traditional Christmas songs played in Arabic and take a tour of the nearby sites like Shepherd’s Field where the shepherds are said to have seen the Star of Nativity.
In Bethlehem, the Church of Nativity and Milk Grotto are essential stops on your pilgrimage. Finally, you’ll want to visit Manger Square on Christmas Eve to watch the celebrations of scouts and the Patriarch. The night ends with a Midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church.
This combination of flavors is a great match for mushroom and seafood. For an Indian-inspired style pair the beurre blanc with items seasoned with ginger, curry leaves, mustard and cumin seeds. And for a Mediterranean vibe, season your pairing with fennel seeds, cumin and smoked paprika.
This subtle rose glaze pairs nicely with cakes that incorporate other Middle Eastern and Persian flavors like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, pistachio or pomegranate. It's perfect for dressing up any dessert for a special occasion.
This heady blend of Persian spices is perfect to sprinkle over savory rice, rub over meats or add to stews. It also happens to be tasty on Persian rice pudding too.
This Moroccan blend of herbs and spices can be used as a marinade or as a condiment. It's perfect for stews, tagines, salads or grilled dishes. Try brushing it over meat, chicken, fish or vegetables to give them a bright fresh flavor. You can also enhance the fillings for stuffed breads, fish or poultry as well as ground and roasted meats with this delicious mix.
For this version, we're making a yellow chermoula, which gets its distinctive color from the addition of turmeric.
This blend from South Africa brings bold heat with a touch of sweetness.
Traditional pesto is a sauce made with fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and dry aged cheese held together by olive oil. But the beauty of pesto is that it can be that plus so much more. It's a versatile sauce that can adapt to the flavors you like or whatever is sitting in your fridge and cupboard at the moment. Have oregano instead of basil? Throw it in there. Have walnuts instead of pine nuts, that's fine too!
Here's a fun variation on pesto that celebrates the flavor of oregano and the versatility of this tasty Italian sauce.
(Optional) For the tadka:
This salty, briny sauce is the perfect compliment to fish, adding a quick burst of fresh herbaceous flavor.
A couple weeks ago I made a Thai-inspired marinade for a London Broil. My husband raved about it and asked how did I get the meat to be so flavorful. Well, I'm here to share the secrets! It's all in the marinade.
You can use this recipe on any kind of protein - chicken, pork, or seafood. This same combo can also be converted into a yummy salad dressing.
We stood on the sidewalk around a small yellow window staring at a vat of oil with eager anticipation. Inside, the baker used chopsticks to gently flip the rings of dough. A moment later he removed them and doused them in a stream of creamy, sugary goodness.
Then, just seconds out of the fryer, he handed me a freshly fried and glazed donut. The melted sugar glistened in the sunlight and begged to be gobbled down immediately. I took one bite of the warm, pillowy soft donut and my taste buds came alive. I’ve eaten many a donut in my day, but there’s nothing like a fresh donut made with love and care.
I can tell you sincerely, not much can beat a day of eating at Granville Market in Vancouver, BC. You’re surrounded by artisans, cooks and craftsmen creating mini delicacies, like the above donuts from Lee’s Donuts. But to get that kind of special treatment, you need a guide with the inside scoop. That’s where Vancouver Foodie Tours comes in.
Foodie Tours offers culinary experiences in four of Vancouver’s must-eat neighborhoods. I joined Nadia, a local chef and guide, for the Granville Island Market Tour.
A highlight of the tour was Edible Canada, a bistro that specializes in local and seasonal items paired with unique and interesting Canadian ingredients. From the rotating assortment of root vegetables to the local wines and novelty salts, I loved it all.
Of course no visit to Canada is complete without maple syrup. We tasted the Noble Tonic 01 maple syrup. The syrup is matured in Tuthilltown bourbon barrels, giving it a distinct charred and oaky taste. After tasting it, we immediately ran inside to buy a bottle. It’s upgraded my waffles and pancakes to a true culinary affair.
My other favorite was the frothy chai samples from South China Sea Trading Company. With each sip I inhaled notes of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice. They offered a hearty portion size that warmed my bones on the chilly March morning. You could spend a whole afternoon at their shop alone. After perusing their extensive array of exotic teas and spices, we went home with a rooibos tea and some of that delicious chai mix.
For the coffee fans (aka not me) we stopped at JJ Bean Coffee Roasters. The coffees are hand selected for their drinkability and roasted in small batches daily. All of the coffee’s are prepared in a French press. I don’t drink coffee, but my husband, a prolific coffee drinker, tells me this method is much better.
“It gives you a better taste. It’s a more full flavor because the coffee is touching the water the whole time instead of trapped behind a filter and stacked on top of each other.”
“Okay,” was my response.
We rounded out the day with a sampling of breads from Terra Breads, a charcuterie platter from Oyama Sausage Company and cheeses from Benton Brother’s Cheeses. We weren’t at a loss for food during the tour, but the amount of food wasn’t overwhelming enough to send you into a food coma.
Nadia was an incredible tour guide offering insights into each corner of the market as well as an informative exploration of Pacific Northwest cuisine. I highly recommend adding this to any Vancouver itinerary. Make sure to ask for Nadia, and tell them I sent you!
I love exploring a new destination on my own, like a frontierswoman. Hitting the road with just my wits and experience. It makes me feel like Calamity Jane, out there seeking adventure (except without all the murdering of Native Americans). We all have an innate desire to discover, and traveling to new places satiates our need to explore.
So why in the world would you ever want to sully that experience with a tour guide?
Well, having a knowledgeable tour guide can add new depth to your travel experience. Not to mention help overcome language barriers and provide access to places you can’t get on your own. Spending the extra money to have a curated experience can also save you time and energy in the long run.
So, here’s how to decide whether to go it alone or hire a guide.
Types of Tours
First, let’s talk about your guided options. There’s generally four types of tours that you’ll come across when traveling:
When Guided Tours are a Good Idea
You’re short on time
A tour guide can keep your itinerary fast, focused and customized to your interests. If you only have a fews days, or even a few hours on a layover or cruise, take a tour. Guides will make reservations and transportation arrangements so you can simply show up. They also know the best hours to go to attractions to avoid lines and may even get you discounts.
Revisiting a place
If you’re returning to a place you’ve been before, a tour guide can offer fresh perspective. They may help you uncover lesser known points of interest. There’s so many things we pass every day but never notice or understand the significance of. I’d been to Pike Place Market in Seattle dozens of times, but joining a food tour brought out so many more interesting things.
Long, slow vacations
When you’ve got the time, I recommend visiting attractions with and without a tour guide. Having a guide at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg helped me understand the artwork. After the tour I wandered alone to enjoy the pieces that spoke to me.
Tours provide context for all the things you see, and don’t see. Your guide shares stories about the history and culture that you may miss exploring on your own. Afterward you can return and linger over places that interest you. You’ll also have a good orientation of where things are after the tour.
Doing adventure activities or nature excursions
While in the Amazon, my guide Billy was able to point out sloths in trees a half-mile away. He showed us caimans, tree frogs and tarantulas that he caught with his bare hands. Obviously, things I never would have done on my own. His experienced eye made that trip unforgettable.
Whether it’s safari, hiking, river rafting, diving or mountain climbing, a professional guide will keep you safe when you’re exploring new terrain. For many of these activities you’re advised or required to have a guide. They will know how to adjust for weather conditions and other dangers, or provide first aid.
Visiting a remote or chaotic place
For a day trip or journey outside the city, you may want a tour to help with logistics. This way you can avoid juggling cars, buses or train travel. Usually, your ride will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.
And, if you’re worried about safety a tour may be the way to go. The guide can navigate, translate and serve as a buffer for unwanted attention.
Seeing historic destinations
In places with a rich historical past, a guide provides more than you can ever get from a book. Places like Cairo, Athens and Kyoto have histories that come to life with an educated tour guide. An excellent guide can breakdown Maori tattoo art or make you feel like you’re standing in the midst of the Battle of Gettysburg.
You want to try something new
Food tours are one of my favorite kinds of tours. I mean, who doesn’t like to eat? But if a cuisine makes you a little nervous, a tour provides a friendly introduction with small portions. Or say you’re not a big wine or art person at home, but you’re in Italy and want to try both. A tour can give you a taste in a fun environment, without you having to devote more than a couple hours.
When You Can Skip the Tour
You want to relax or be spontaneous
A tour means having a schedule and being at a certain place at a certain time. If you want to be open-ended and spontaneous, skip the tour guide. It’s also okay if your trip isn’t about sightseeing. Sometimes quiet “me time” is all you need.
Revisiting a place you’ve already toured
Tours are great as a foundation. Once you have that, you’re off to the races. Revisiting places is a great time to explore and find hidden gems of your own.
You’re on a tight budget
Guided tours cost money. If you want the info and don’t mind skipping the guide, researching online or buying a good guide book is all you need. But, if you want a guide and cost is a factor, search online for free tours. Many attractions offer a few scheduled free tours and there’s a lots of free city walking tours. For city tours you pay what you want and can afford.
In a small place
A formal tour isn’t always necessary, especially in a small town where any local could be your guide for the day. Talk to people, ask them questions, read the plaques and you’ll learn more than you ever imagined.
If you want to practice the language or meet locals
Having a guide is helpful, but if you’re seeking an immersion experience ditch the tour. Challenge your language skills by talking to locals. They can show you around and provide a unique perspective. In Buenos Aires, I joined a strange man for a trip to El Tigre. I got to practice my Spanish and left with one hell of a unique story to tell.
Ivy stood over my shoulder and watched as I tired to fold the seams of dough with slow care.
“Those nails. They make holding the dough difficult. They are pretty, but not good for folding dumplings.”
She was right. I was struggling to make my dumpling look as seamless and perfect as hers. But, I felt better watching my husband who was doing worse than I was. My dumplings needed makeup, his needed plastic surgery.
We were hard at work in Ivy Chen’s kitchen in Taipei. Our mission: to recreate Din Tai Fung’s xiaolongbao.
One of Taiwan’s most famous exports is Din Tai Fung. The restaurant specializes in dumplings and noodles. But, their pièce de résistance is their xiaolongbao, a steamed dumpling with meat and a soup broth inside. Unlike your usual flash-frozen fare, the dumplings are made fresh. That means the insides are juicy, not dry and the dough is chewy, not rubbery.
People travel for miles, across city and country borders, to eat at this place. At my local outpost the wait for a table is never less than 45 minutes, and can exceed 90 minutes. So what is the secret??? We came to Ivy to find out.
Ivy spent years experimenting and researching how to make dumplings Din Tai Fung-style. We headed to her cozy apartment in the Shilin District to get her guidance.
The first step in making the dumplings is getting the broth right. This part can take an entire day. So Ivy prepared it in advance and explained the key ingredient: pork skin. Pork is important for two reasons, first flavor, and second collagen.
To get the soup inside the dumpling you need it to be solid first. The collagen in the skin will turn the broth into a gelatin when it’s cold. Then, when the dumpling is heated the broth will melt and you get soup in your dumpling. It’s a very similar process to making molten lava cake.
The pork skin is combined with chicken bones, spices, rice wine and water. After these cook down, the broth cools and turns to a jelly.
According to Ivy, no matter which Din Tai Fung dumpling you choose the broth includes pork skin. It provides a meaty, umami flavor and has strong enough proteins to keep the soup solid until it hits the steam.
Din Tai Fung has a few filling options: shrimp, pork, crab, chicken and squash. But the classic is pork, so we went with that.
We mixed ground pork with spices and the broth before cooling it down into a jelly. Less than an hour later we were ready to start stuffing our dumplings.
As we cooked, we learned how Ivy came to being a cooking instructor. It started with her desire to practice English. She offered Mandarin classes to meet expats, but her students became more interested in food than language. So she started cooking classes. Now Ivy teaches chefs and dignitaries from all around the world. And, sometimes makes time for normal folks like us.
Next, is the cold water dough. It’s a simple combination of flour, water and salt. This recipe gets you everything from dumpling skins to noodles and wonton wrappers.
Making the dough was the easy part. It’s filling that takes skill. At Din Tai Fung there’s a window display where you can watch the staff roll, stuff and seal each dumpling. The process is like watching an automobile assembly line. They operate with speed and precision. That was the complete opposite of us.
A soup dumpling is tricky because during the cooking process the filling will expand. That means you need room for it to grow and a sturdy base to hold the weight of the soup. Seepage is the last thing you want from your soup dumplings!
You roll the dough out into a circle, but to get the perfect balance, the center needs to be thicker than the sides. This involves rolling and twisting the dough, and releasing your pressure as you roll. It’s 10x harder than patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
After rolling, we moved on to filling and sealing the dumplings. Folding beautiful meaty purses of dough is a job that requires a deft hand. That skill only comes with practice…that I didn’t have. I’d show Ivy my attempt and she’d smile at my imperfect creation. But by dumpling six mine looked pretty darn good!
The moment of truth though was eating our xiaolongbao. Would they be better than Din Tai Fung’s?
Of course not!!! Are you kidding? The flavor was definitely on par with the real thing, but our wrapping skills were not. That meant there was some seepage. But our hard work made them taste so much better. And after spending a day in the kitchen, I walked away with new appreciation for these balls of goodness.
Llajua is a chili sauce prepared from rocotos (Capsicum pubescens) hot chili peppers, and tomatoes. It's best if mixed by hand with a mortar and pestle. While it can be prepared in a blender, the mixture will foam up creating the wrong texture. It's traditionally served as a dip that can do on anything and everything!
Walking along the Tamsui river in Taipei, a pungent and repugnant smell smacked my nose. It was like a combination of rotting garbage and July subway train B.O. I recognized that unmistakeable aroma immediately: stinky tofu.
Stinky tofu, or chou dofu, is fermented tofu. Immigrants from mainland China brought it to Taiwan. Now, this humble dish is ubiquitous on the island. People love it. If you enjoy spicy food, imagine the feeling you get when you can’t stop eating even though it’s achingly hot. The pain, whether it’s in your gums or in your nose, feels wicked and addictive.
If you’ve had tofu, you know this bland block of boring (sorry tofu lovers) is in dire need of seasoning and punctuation. That’s where the brine comes in. It’s made from vegetables, meat and fermented milk that brew for months or, for the best versions, years.
Then the dry tofu is steeped inside, soaking up the brine like a sponge. The longer the tofu ferments, the more of the brine it absorbs which makes it softer and stinkier. That transforms the soybean curd into a smorgasbord of scents and flavors.
Speaking of flavors, let’s talk taste. Everyone focuses on the smell, but how does it taste?!?! Hold on, we’ll get there.
After smelling the stinky tofu on the street, my husband smiled and asked “Do you want to try it?”
Never one to back down from a challenge, I courageously said, “Uhhh, okay.”
We stood along the side of the road watching the squares of tofu simmer in the hot oil. A small crowd of patrons surrounded the stall, eagerly awaiting their smelly bounty.
The owner of the stall snatched the tofu out of the oil and used her chopsticks to create a hole on top. She stuffed each one with pickled vegetables. Then she basted the top with chili sauce, before sliding them into a paper wrapper and handing them off to us.
I nodded to my husband and our travel mate, Ken, before lifting the stick and biting into the tofu.
The golden, crispy outside of the fried tofu gave way to a warm creamy interior. Those pickled vegetables provided a crunchy yin to the tofu’s smooth yang. Finally, the sweet chili sauce was a refreshing counter to the sour flavors. My taste buds settled into happy harmony, despite the stench.
It wasn’t what I expected. Actually, I’m not sure what I expected. But the best words to describe the experience are balanced and surprising.
But adventurous eating isn’t the only reason to try stinky tofu. It’s also good for you! Stinky tofu is venerated in Taiwan for its health benefits. Like other fermented foods, say kombucha or kimchi, it contains probiotics. Hey, hipster foodies, here’s your new thing! The microbes can help your micro-biota (gut bacteria). It’s also said that stinky tofu increases the flow of chi, the life force of traditional Chinese medicine.
Finding stinky tofu in Taiwan won’t be hard. You follow the smell. It’s sold at night markets or roadside stands, where there’s plenty of aeration and breeze. Because you know, someone’s landlord would definitely evict them if they tried to cook this at home. And you can have it fried, grilled, steamed, or even served cold, which enhances the stink.
If you want a restaurant experience, check out the Dai Family House of Unique Stink in the Xinyi District of Taipei. The owner, Wu Hsu Pi-ying, is the stinky tofu don in Taipei. She’s been making her version for more than 30 years.
What to Do When You Don’t Know The Language
One of the most exciting parts of leaving your home country is being immersed in another culture. When you’re abroad you get to experience a community’s unique customs and ways of life. At the same time, adapting to a new culture can be overwhelming. It’s even further complicated when your visit comes with a new language that you don’t speak.
Traveling to places where English isn’t spoken can present communication challenges. But communicating isn’t impossible! And, it shouldn’t keep you from visiting places where the locals don’t speak English. I have fond memories from the comical dance of communicating across language barriers. It pushes you to get creative and be more open minded about how to understand and be understood.
The first thing to know is that you may run into more English speakers than you expect. English is the predominant language of tourism. Destinations that expect international visitors often have English speakers at the touristic sites. People in hospitality at hotels, landmarks and restaurants are likely to speak English.
Away from tourist areas, if you need to find someone who speaks English look for someone younger. Learning English as a second language has grown more popular with recent generations. And please remember, if you’re trying to communicate with someone who isn’t fluent in English, speak slowly and clearly NOT louder. And, when possible, use simple vocabulary and sentence structure.
But, you’re not always going to run into an English speaker when you need one. There’s also many ways you can bridge the language barrier. Here’s 8 tips on how to travel to places that don’t speak English and have an amazing time in process.
1. Learn the basics
People are much friendlier if you at least attempt to communicate in their language. You don’t have to try to master the language either. Focus on learning how to say simple things like hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, thank you and excuse me. Other helpful phrases to learn are “Where is the toilet?,” “Do you speak English?,” “My name is…,” and “How much does this cost?”
Before I went to France for the first time, lots of people warned me that French people are rude and arrogant. After spending a day walking around the city with a friend I realized that most of that statement is untrue. French people are some of the most gracious people I’ve ever encountered. And, they appreciate those who realize that in France they speak French. So even if your French is atrocious (like mine) give it a go. They will often kindly rescue you and speak English in return.
2. Use hand gestures
Body language is almost universal, and comes in very handy when words have to be put on ice. For instance, pointing can often be more useful than speaking. It’s the Rosetta Stone of nonverbal communication. You’ll get very good at charades when you need to communicate in a place where people don’t speak your language. So feel free to pantomime, make sounds and don’t worry about looking silly, because you’ll get your point across!
I’ve ordered from a menu by making animal sounds to figure out what was in the dish, and it worked like a charm. You can point to what you need, use your fingers to show numbers or communicate directions.
Just be sure to look up the meaning of common gestures to make sure you won’t make a cultural faux pas by throwing up the the sign for a-ok (yes, in Brazil that means something entirely different!).
3. Carry around a notepad
If you have trouble pronouncing local names, try writing the names down in the local language. When local people offer me recommendations I always have THEM write or type the names for me. This makes it much easier to give the name to a driver or look up information later.
This also makes it easier if you need to ask for help while navigating. Instead of mispronouncing a name you can show it to someone and they will be able to direct you. The notepad is also good if you need someone to draw an impromptu map.
4. Use numbers
If you’re in a place that doesn’t speak English, skip the words and rely on the numbers. Numbers are the most ubiquitous language because math exists everywhere. Also, most countries use Indo-Arabic numerals (i.e., 1, 2, 3), so it’s pretty universal. If you’re trying to shop or negotiate a price for something, you can use a calculator or a sheet of paper to ask for the price. This way you can still haggle anywhere in the world.
5. Bring or make a friend who does speak the language
A great shortcut to getting around when you don’t speak the language is to find someone who does! There’s a few ways to find a language buddy:
Traveling with someone who speaks the language is an invaluable asset. Plus, if they’re local you’ll get an insider’s look at your destination and see things you’d never find in a guide book.
6. Carry a phrase book or use an app to learn as you go
Before you leave grab a pocket language guide or download a language app. You can buy a book, or better yet, borrow one from your library. Also, apps like Nemo and Duolingo can help you learn pronunciation and basic phrases. If you won’t have internet at your destination, make sure to find an app you can use offline so you aren’t left high and dry.
7. Take advantage of your smartphone
Traveling with a smartphone can make getting by without English much easier. I always wonder, how did people travel before smartphones and GPS?? Google Translate is one of the most powerful and indispensable translation apps. You use it in a variety of ways. From typing in phrases to translating spoken audio or an image of the written words. One of my favorite features is the ability to hold your phone camera over words and see them transform into English on the screen. It’s like watching something out of Harry Potter!
8. Smile & take it slow
This is one of the pieces of advice that will help you the most. Courtesy and a smile helps bring out the best in the people who are there to help you, even if you have a language barrier. Everyone has dealt with communication problems in one way or another. No matter who you’re talking to you can feel at ease knowing they’ve been in your shoes before as well.
Don’t think that you have to know everything or speak the language to make friends. Smiles are international. You may mess up or encounter a situation where you don’t know what to say or do something you shouldn’t. That’s okay, I’ve done it more times that I can count. Learn to laugh it off and most of all have fun. That’s why you’re there!
Want to know what makes Moroccan food so delicious? It’s the SPICES.
Moroccans use their spices liberally and frequently so they don’t stick around in the cupboards very long. For this reason, it’s best to use fresh spices to recreate the authentic strong, bold flavors of Moroccan dishes. Here’s the key to getting the best results when making Moroccan food and using spices in general:
Buy your spices by weight, not in bulk.
Most ground spices you find at the grocery store are sold in large containers. But you usually only cook with a teaspoon or two so these can take years to use, all the while losing their potency and flavor. No bueno.
The solution: if you’re making a dish where spices are the star, buy your spices fresh and in small quantities. You can visit a specialty spice market and many large grocery stores also now sell spices by weight. Look for bright, vibrant color and strong aromatics when checking for freshness.
Buy whole spices and grind them at home.
If you want your spices to last a few years, buy them whole. Ground spices lose most of their potency within a year. The old spices won’t make you sick but they also won’t do much in the flavor department. Whole spices can stay on the shelf much longer and when you need them you can throw them in a spice or coffee grinder or go old school and pull out the mortar and pestle. Trust me, using fresh whole spices will make a difference you can smell AND taste.
Here’s a brief list of spices you’ll see, smell and taste in the Moroccan kitchen. You don’t necessarily need all of these spices to make every Moroccan dish, but you’ll find that many of them are probably staples you already have on hand.
Salt is incorporated into pretty much every savory Moroccan dish and coarse salt is usually used in Moroccan homes. You can easily use kosher or sea salt to replicate Moroccan recipes. But if you’re switching over from iodized salt, I recommend going light on the salt at first. I realized going from Morton’s to kosher salt that there are varying degrees of saltiness. Just remember, you can always add more salt, but it’ll be a headache trying to take it out.
Pepper is another essential in the Moroccan home. It comes in different colors: black, white and green. Fresh ground pepper offers the most pungent flavor, and for best results purchase the berries and ground them at home. I toss mine in a coffee grinder on the espresso setting and keep a small pre-ground supply that I can sprinkle in as I cook. For dishes where you want a more subtle flavor, especially in the sweet/savory dishes Morocco is known for, white pepper offers a nice mild alternative.
You’ll find dry, ground ginger used throughout Moroccan cooking to flavor tajines, couscous, soups and many other dishes. It has a pale yellow to brownish yellow color and adds a tangy and distinct aroma. The flavor of dried ginger is quite different and mellower than fresh ginger. Because its flavor isn’t as pungent, it’s best added when a dish is almost complete so it doesn’t become overcooked and lose its flavor.
Cumin is a main ingredient in Moroccan cooking and is used to flavor meats, salads, stews and tajines. The spice comes from ground dried seeds of a plant related to parsley and is one of my all-around favorites in the kitchen. Moroccan cumin is very fragrant and adds a slightly nutty, bitter taste. I like to heat mine in the cooking oil with other aromatics (onions, garlic, etc.) to help the flavor really bloom. In Morocco you may also find it, along with salt, on the dining table.
Morocco is a leading producer of saffron, particularly in the High Atlas region, and it is used to flavor tajines, rice dishes and the traditional Moroccan soup harira. Saffron threads are cultivated from the pistil of the crocus flower and it takes about 200,000 flowers to produce one kilo of saffron. But you don’t need to add much to a dish because these babies are powerful and fragrant. Just a few threads are all that’s needed to give a dish the signature saffron goodness. Saffron adds a unique taste along with a strong aroma and helps give the distinctive yellow color of Moroccan dishes.
Tumeric is a versatile spice that is used for everything from dyes, to medicine, to a cosmetic remedy, but most deliciously it’s used in food. It imparts a wonderful yellow color to tajines and rice dishes, but watch out because it will also impart that color to your clothes. It comes from the dried root of the plant curcuma longa and has a fragrant, floral scent with a touch of metallic bitterness — some describe it as a combination of ginger and pepper.
This isn’t exactly a spice, but you’re likely to see it used often in Moroccan kitchen. Cooks add this bright orange powder to dishes to give them a yellow color. It can be used in addition to or in place of turmeric and saffron but it doesn’t add any taste or aroma to the food and is chemically based. You won’t find these little white packets of coloring widely available outside of Morocco, but you can sub in annatto powder to provide color and a more natural alternative.
Cinnamon is used frequently in Moroccan desserts and recipes like pastilla (bisteeya), tajines, fruit salads and lamb dishes. Cinnamon is native to Morocco and the spice comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. In Moroccan cooking, both ground cinnamon and the bark are used. It’s a fragrant, sweet spice that also adds a wonderful dimension to couscous and dishes made with raisins.
Paprika is made from dried red peppers and is used in Moroccan cooking to add color and flavor to soups, meats, and salads. You’ll find both sweet and hot varieties of paprika, and can range in color from deep red to orange red depending on the type of peppers used. Moroccans normally stir a small amount of olive oil into paprika before adding it to the dish.
Ras El Hanout
Ras El Hanout is a spice mixture that you’ll find at every Moroccan spice shop. The literal translation of this Arabic phrase is “head of the shop,” because these spices are the best the shop has to offer. Recipes for Ras El Hanout vary and can include up to 30 ingredients, but they frequently include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers and turmeric. You can find this premixed at specialty spice shops and I’ve recently seen it on the shelves at Trader Joes.
Paella is first and foremost about the rice, and when it’s done right the rice should be flavorful and al dente, never mushy. The rice should also form a nice caramelized crust on the bottom of the pan called the socarrat – this is the crown jewel of paella making.
This means two things for the cook:
Prep time: 45 minutes | Cook time: 45 minutes | Total time: 1½ hours | Yield: 4 servings
There's nothing like a beautiful, bountiful plate of paella rice covered in delectable seafood treasures. Learn how to make a paella de mariscos, and charm the pants off anyone who eats it!
I'm Natasha Ho, a trained chef and avid traveler. I've studied culinary traditions from cuisines around the world, and I help food lovers learn how to cook a wide variety of meals that are consistently delicious so they can have more fun, ease and joy in their kitchen.