About Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.


Latest Posts by Jessica Festa

Organic Farming & White Water Rafting Costa Rica Style

February 7, 2016 by  

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“Make sure to listen closely on this next one.

If you fall out, you WILL get hurt.”

We are traversing the Class 4 Rio Toro rapids with our guide, Mario, of Costa Rica Descents directing us on how to keep our bodies in the boat.

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Our rafting guide, Mario

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“Pura Vida” is the local philosophy in Costa Rica

After being picked up at out accommodation, La Fortuna Hotel, filling out the necessary waivers at their office and listening to a safety briefing — oh yea, and seeing a sloth in the grocery store parking lot when we stop for water — the adrenaline rush begins almost immediately.

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Sloth sighting in a grocery store parking lot. Photo courtesy of Costa Rica Descents.

The river wastes no time showing us what she is made of, Mario shouting commands like “forward faster!” and “get in!” to keep us from bouncing out of the raft,  fierce gushes of water drowning out our shrill screams as we bound over rocks and cascades.

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Mario explains that 95% of rafting accidents are caused by paddle injuries, namely people not holding the handle with their palms and accidentally smashing them into peoples faces. I concentrate hard on trying not to knock my fellow rafters’ teeth out while also throwing myself from the boat rim (where we sit most of the time) onto the boat floor when particularly intense rapids pop up.

Which is about every 5.3 minutes.

Which is also terrifying.

Which is also what makes the trip so much fun.

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Photo of our group courtesy of Costa Rica Descents

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Photo of our group courtesy of Costa Rica Descents

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Photo of our group courtesy of Costa Rica Descents

At this point of the Way to San Jose tour our group is thick as thieves, so when Michelle and I start whispering about how sexy the camera man in the kayak is — between dominating rapids, of course — or teasing Rachel and Simona for trying to hide on the boat floor, or trying to keep Javier and Tim from purposely drowning the rest of the group, it’s all in good fun.

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Shockingly, nobody falls out of the raft. Actually, let me re-phrase. Nobody falls out of the raft due to the rapids. Javier and Tim, on the other hand, are another animal, and during the few relaxing parts of the boat ride us ladies are helplessly thrown from our seats. Luckily, we’re used to this type of playful abuse from the boys at this point — remember Granada, Nicaragua? — and as much as we beg them to “NOOOO, AHHHH, Noooooo!” as we try to be dead weight on the raft floor we secretly love it.

An Organic Farm Experience

Our adventurous trip down the river lasts about two hours, and ends with a delicious buffet of fresh cut pineapple and watermelon before we head to the company owner’s organic farm for lunch. We’re instructed not to smoke or use any sprays, like perfume or insect repellent, as it can contaminate the farm. Which, by the way, is really really really beautiful.

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Beautiful views on an organic farm in Costa Rica

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Savoring organic plants on the farm

The farm features plants for both culinary and medicinal use, from bitter ortiga which is great for stomach issues to vitamin-rich lemongrass to endless rows of coffee cherries, which are made into coffee using a sock-like contraption called a chorreador. The ground coffee goes into the sock filter over your cup, before pour boiling water slowly poured into it. A steaming cup is presented to me, and I sip it first without sugar and milk, then with a thick froth that gives it a marshmallow-like twist.

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Sipping coffee on an organic coffee farm in Costa Rica

The buffet we savor features homegrown ingredients, green banana salad, yucca, gallo pinto, salsa, herbed chicken — all washed down with fresh lemonade. Once we have our virgin sips and take a guided walk around the property, we’re brought to an open-air stable where we shoot high proof grain sugarcane alcohol chased by sugarcane juice — which we make ourselves using a crank to squeeze the liquid from the crop. Plump bites of juicy sugarcane are also passed out, and we’re told this was the original toothpaste and gum before either existed.

After an adventurous day, the group unwinds at the Baldi Hot Springs, which for $40 provides access to a huge buffet, adrenaline rush-inducing slides and an enormous array of pools — hot and cold — and steam rooms lush with flora. We sneak in rum and Coke and get tipsy under the stars, lounging on underwater chairs and bar stools. It’s a seriously luxurious experience

Tip: If you don’t want to pay but still want a spa-like experience head to the hot springs near Tabacon Resort, free to enter though not as mellow or luxurious. Just hop in a 10-minute cab and tell them where you want to go. Bring your own booze and snacks, though just wear a bathing suit and bring water shoes and a flashlight as you’ll need to traverse lots of rocky, strong current terrain to reach the hot pools. Once you do… pure bliss.

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This post is part of a multi-story series based on my Way to San Jose trip, hosted by Intrepid Travel.

5 Transformative Hotels & Stays For Your Bucket List

January 31, 2016 by  

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At its most basic, a rented room only requires four walls and a place to sleep; but for those looking to have a memorable vacation, shouldn’t this also include the accommodation? This round-up highlights a variety of properties providing immersive stays; experiential hotels where you’ll dive right into local life and gain a new perspective on your surroundings. Whether you’ve always wanted to eat in an igloo, stay in a Native American earth lodge, explore the Wild West on horseback or make your own bacon in an English village, these amazing hotels might end up being the highlight of your trip!

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Stay with a family at this residence in Northeast Thailand. Photo courtesy of Kid & Coe.

1) Stay with A Thai Family (Udon Thani, Thailand)

Ever wanted to ride a buffalo? Plant rice? Hunt field mice? Your local hosts at a family-run accommodation will happily help you make your wildest Southeast Asian dreams come true. The Prachack Residence in Northeast Thailand can sleep up to six and includes a private saltwater pool and extensive tropical gardens with bananas, papaya and mango where you can pick your own fresh fruit for breakfast while the kids hunt for geckos. The family cooks your meals and arranges Thai tractor rides, boat rides in the lotus lakes, Thai cooking lessons, Thai massages, trips to the Ban Chiang World Heritage Site, crafts village visits and more. This is an amazing opportunity to customize your time in a non-touristy part of Thailand and gain valuable local insight.

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Terrace of the Alp Hut. Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel Kronenhof

2) Stay In A Swiss Mountain Hut (Pontresina, Switzerland)

If you’re looking for the perfect place to practice your yodel, look no further than renting an alpine hut in Pontresina, Switzerland. The wide open spaces and spectacular scenery will inspire you to run through fields of wildflowers, roll down hills and breathe invigorating mountain air with no one around to judge your jubilation. The Grand Hotel Kronenhof rents out their Alpine hut for families who want to be surrounded by wild pastures. The hut is 10 kilometers (six miles) from the hotel, high in the mountains and close to the Bernina Pass with a variety of hiking paths, mountain bike trails and lakes to choose from.

To help remove any stress from your mountain retreat, the Alpine Hut Package includes transfers to and from the hut, as well as a rustic three-course menu prepared by a private chef. If you wish, you can join the Chef to visit local markets and learn about regional produce and how to cook it.

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Saddleback piglets. Photo courtesy of Buttle Farm.

3) Go Hog Wild At A Working Pig Farm (Compton Bassett, England)

If your picture of paradise is an English village complete with thatched cottages, quaint churches, farms and the local pub, look no further than a Bed & Breakfast at Buttle Farm in Compton Bassett, England. The working pig farm has been converting old barns into B&B rooms and a two-bed holiday cottage that will be ready by Easter 2016.

In addition to luxurious accommodations that honor the historic structures, Bassett Farm is home to a rare breed of British traditional pigs in an extensive, free-range setting. Guests are invited to help feed and work with these adorable creatures, who spend their days rooting, digging holes, taking mud baths and napping. You can also spend a half-day learning how to make bacon, stuff salami or even how to butcher a whole pig. You can either bring custom-made bacon home to share with friends or bring friends to the farm. The site can be rented out to accommodate eight people in four rooms, and you can take full advantage of the spit roast, wood fired oven and barbecue on the terrace.

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Drinks at el callejon as part of the Casco Viejo tour. Photo courtesy of Sarah Tyler

4) Wander Casco Viejo With Reformed Gang Members (Panama City, Panama)

If you want to have the best of both worlds during your stay in Panama City, consider the Westin Playa Bonita. It is located on a one-mile stretch of private beach just minutes from Panama City, which makes it one of the only beach resorts with easy access to downtown. The resort’s three gorgeous infinity pools immerse you in your setting with views of the ocean, rain forest and even ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal.

For a truly unforgettable experience of Panama City, the hotel can arrange for guests to see a very different side of Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site. As a part of a local fundraising organization, you can join ex-gang members for a tour of the once crime-filled neighborhood of Panama’s “old city.” With these tours, Esperanza Social Venture Club allows reformed gang members to share memories about their former stomping ground, earn money to support their families and safeguard this once-dangerous area. The tour ends with food and drinks in the “el callejon,” or the alleyway, that they converted into an open-air food court.

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Fondue in an igloo. Photo courtesy of Tschuggen Grand Hotel.

5) Dine in A Mini Igloo Village (Arosa, Switzerland)

Enhance your Swiss Alpine ski adventure by heading to Arosa, a lesser-known ski resort area in the Swiss Alps. The five-star Tschuggen Grand Hotel will make your stay truly unforgettable with its eccentric Swiss style rooms and spa built into the mountain. After hitting the hills, refuel at a miniature igloo dining village at the foot of the mountain on the hotel’s property. You can sit on benches blanketed in warm furs as you munch on traditional Swiss fondue or treat yourself to Champagne- and truffle-infused fondue.

If you’re interested in catching a bite in between runs, you can ski-in and ski-out of a causal gourmet restaurant called The Basement. Hotel guests arrive to the restaurant via the the Tschuggen Express, the hotel’s private enclosed lift. You eat in a bib, though your causal attire does not compromise the quality of your meal.

 

Contributed by Katie Foote

Cloud Forests Meets Coffee on a Costa Rican Journey

January 28, 2016 by  

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Cloud forest ziplining. Canyoning. Bungy jumping. High altitude canopy tours. The biodiversity-rich Monteverde in Costa Rica is known for being an adventurous destination; however, at this point in my Intrepid Travel Way to San Jose Tour I was craving a break from structured experiences and craving a day of unplanned exploration and discovery. So while most of my group signed up for various tours, I took a different path, literally.

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Historias Lodge collage

A Trip To The Clouds

From my rustic family-run hotel, Historias Lodge, the public bus — a giant yellow school bus — was just a five minute walk, costing 600 Colones (about $1.15). It takes only 10 minutes to reach the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, featuring more than 4,000 hectares of lush ecosystems, over 100 mammal specials, more than 400 birds and over 3,000 plants, including the largest diversity of orchids on the planet with over 500 species. The Reserve was established in 1972 to help stop the growing threat of settlers moving up the mountain.

While admission is $20 my student ID gets me in for $10, and I’m given a map depicting 13 trail options, many interconnecting to allow for numerous adventures. I start with the Sendero Nuboso which connects to Sendero La Ventana, heading up to the La Ventana lookout, the highest point in the Reserve at 1,840 meters (6,037 feet) above sea level.

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The trail isn’t particularly challenging; however it’s astounding aesthetically, thick trees stretching toward the sky covered in hanging vines and fungi, red ginger interspersed with dew dropped moss, giant ferns and wet bark. A cloud mist envelops the whole scene giving an ominous feel.

I don’t walk fast; just enjoy the scenery and sounds — the various bird calls, the rushing streams, the cracking twigs. The lookout is cloudy but beautiful, as despite not being able to see anything I feel like I’m on top of the world, literally.

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I’m in the clouds!

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I decide to follow the map to link with Sendero Puente, an uphill climb taking me to a shaking suspension bridge (which Javier, my silly Intrepid Travel guide, of course insists on jumping all over). To me the view here is better than the lookout, and I get a slight shiver as I glance down and notice my elevated perch above the forest.

The way back to the visitor center is an uphill battle, and when I finally make it I’m in need of some energy — via coffee — at the onsite cafe. What I’m greeted with is so much more than caffeine, however, as the venue has setup hummingbird feeders filled with sugar water. The rapid-winged birds glimmer green and purple in the sun, and I can’t get enough of watching them hoover in mid-air deciding their next move, wings flapping so fast you think they might open a time portal, beaks long and elegant.

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Beautiful hummingbirds in Monteverde

The entire trekking experience takes about 2.5 hours including stops for photos and to enjoy the scenery.

I grab the 11am bus back toward town (same price) but stop at the local Heladeria Monteverde, renowned as a top local experience. Monteverde has a strong dairy culture — they even have cheese factory tours at the Monteverde Cheese Factory — and the homemade ice cream I savor proves it. I’m allowed two free samples, and choose sour cream with stawberries (so rich!) and a mint chip (so flavorful with huge chocolate chunks). I grab a scoop of the mint chip and watch the local teens enjoying their treats from a table.

Costa Rican Craft Beer

One of the other Intrepid Travel girls, Rachel, accompanies me on a journey into the main town, Santa Elena, small but not lacking tourism offices, restaurants, bars and shops. As we walk I see a sign that reads “Beer Shakes,” and naturally gravitate into its doors.

While the beer shakes are no longer being made — though they do have a stout float — the Monteverde Beer House is a microbrewery that makes three different ales: Amber, Red and Scottish. After drinking the prominent Miller-type beers like Gallo and Tona around Central America it was a welcome change. The venue has a hipster vibe, with lots of wooden accents, a small production facility in view, and indoor-outdoor seating.

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Cool microbrewery in Monteverde

Costa Rican Coffee Culture

They’re also near to what becomes my favorite coffee shop: Beso Espresso. Tip: look hard at their logo; the steaming cup also shows two mouths kissing. The amazing experience begins with the barista going over the profiles of the nine different varieties of Costa Rican beans offered. I choose a “Red Honey” from the Central Valley, with aromas of ripe fruits, flavors of plum and caramel, and a sweet chocolate finish. Delicious, especially paired with an epic electronic playlist and the barista going over the different coffee regions with me. It’s a delicious lesson in Costa Rican coffee culture.

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Exploring Costa Rican coffee culture at Beso Espresso

Rest & Raging

At this point it’s time to rest up before dinner and salsa dancing, and Historias Lodge is the perfect respite. My balcony offers views of the lush surroundings, while the hot water and strong pressure of the showers makes a great beginning to a nap under the comfy flannel bed blankets. My favorite part of the stay, however, is the adorable one-eyed dog and chatting over coffee and cookies with the owner, Luis, something I do many times during my short stay.

It’s a Friday, so around 8pm my group convenes at the outdoor tables with bottles of rum and Coke, getting tipsy before dinner and dancing at Bar Amigos. We laugh over shots, clinking glasses and spilling Flor de Cana, our voices getting louder as the drinks flow. Luis closes up the hotel and walks us to his house next door to kindly drive us the five minutes to the bar, where I promptly shovel delicious heaps of chicken and rice with fries and veggies into my sloshing stomach.

Then, it’s time to work it off. We alternate between salsa, bachata and merengue dancing to a live band, and fist pumping and twerking to a DJ, dance circles forming around one-minute stars busting a move.
As always, never a dull moment with this crowd, who, as our 17-day Way to San Jose trip nears to a close, I realize I’m going to miss everyone terribly. That’s the beauty and bad of this type of trip; you create memories with amazing people you’ll never forget, but you also need to at goodbye to them at some point, although I have a feeling for most of us it’ll be more of a so-long than a final farewell.

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The crew taking a boat to La Fortuna, Costa Rica

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Boat to La Fortuna, the amazing Arenal Volcano in the background. Luckily, we still have a few more days of fun left. Next up: La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

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Border Crossing Notes: During my Intrepid Travel Way To San Jose journey, we crossed from Guatemala to Honduras, Honduras to Nicaragua, and Nicaragua to Costa Rica. In terms of safety, the crossing into Costa Rica was the worst, with pickpocketers and spammers literally waiting for tour buses at the border. You may want to get a combination lock to seal up your backpacks, or at least wear packs with valuables in front of you.

Also, don’t purchase customs forms off the street. You’ll receive one from the immigration officer for free when you leave Nicaragua. Lastly, be sure to check the immigration officer really stamped your passport. I had an issue where they forgot to, and I had to go back and have the Nicaragua customs official redo it.

 

How To Be More Present & Respectful On-The-Road

January 26, 2016 by  

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An Indian woman in a beautiful sari. Photo courtesy of szefei/Shutterstock

According to the World Tourism Organization, over 1.1 billion tourists traveled abroad in 2014 alone, and that number will skyrocket to 1.8 billion by 2030. Increasingly, these tourists are straying off the beaten track and seeking unique and authentic experiences among local communities; however, as these visitors stray from well-trod tourist destinations, they face a larger cultural divide among peoples unaccustomed to foreign eyes and Western cultural standards.

Worse still, tourists can forget that the “exotic” community they are visiting isn’t just a spectacle that exists for their enjoyment. While it’s natural to be unfamiliar with foreign cultural norms, many of these misunderstandings lead to rude and inappropriate behavior that leaves both the tourist and the locals with a sour aftertaste. For example…

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Tom Roche/Shutterstock

1. The Sacred Becomes Spectacle

As tourists, we are lucky to experience sacred ceremonies and visit holy sites; however, it’s easy to forget that these still hold special significance for local communities. For example, Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a magnificent temple complex, and the largest religious site in the world. Usually, it is swarmed with tourists, who don’t treat the temple with the respect that it deserves. Often, visitors will fail to wear appropriate clothes or display downright obnoxious behavior.

A Better Way: Tour religious sites with local community members, who will introduce you to cultural norms and rules surrounding sacred places. For example, you can travel to Banteay Chhmar temple in Northwest Cambodia and tour the ruins with the local Khmer people. Afterwards, experience an evening in the local village. You will better understand the significance these sites continue to hold for Cambodian people, as well as learn more about modern Khmer culture and everyday life in rural Cambodia.

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Learn to milk a cow with a local farmer at San Jose de Challaca. Photo courtesy of Oleg Krugliak/Shutterstock

2. Ignorance Breeds Resentment

In many cases, tourists are simply ignorant of local cultures, or even uninterested. In Peru, thousands of people come from all over the world to see the magnificent Machu Picchu; however, few take interest in local communities. In part, this is due to language barriers — after all, most people will have trouble communicating with locals without a shared vocabulary. This creates distance between visitors and locals that may ultimately lead to misunderstandings and resentment.

A Better Way: Spend the day with a local community with a knowledgeable guide, who will help bridge the language gap. In Peru, you can visit San Jose de Challaca, a community-based cooperative. While there, learn more about rural Peruvian culture as you prepare your own dairy products with local farmers. Both you and your hosts will learn about the others’ culture, and you will truly feel as if you have experienced rural Peruvian life.

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Cape Town farmers via Uthando

3. Poverty Is Entertainment

Slum tourism a troubling trend in which visitors take tours of struggling communities, without actually interacting with community members. While the fad exists all over the world — for example, Favela tours in Brazil and slum tours in Mumbai — it is rampant in South Africa. Many visitors are curious to see the remaining scars apartheid has left on the country. Township Tours have little benefit to those actually living in the community, and turns their poverty into a show for curious eyes.

A Better Way: Take a tour with Uthando, a nonprofit located in Cape Town, South Africa. Knowledgeable guides will show you Uthando’s various community development projects, including day care, early learning centers, urban agricultural and environmental programs, youth development, after school extracurricular activities, senior care and animal care. You will see how one nonprofit is working to heal the wounds left by apartheid, instead of profiting off the scars that continue to exist in the country.

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Museum Without Walls. Photo courtesy of Beit Hagefen

4. Biases Create Divide

We all have biases. We can’t help but project them on everything we see, particularly when visiting areas in turmoil. For instance, most visitors to Israel are aware of tense relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and most have strong opinions on the subject; however, when we carry these biases with us, we may miss an opportunity to better understand and heal this divide.

A Better Way: Visit the Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center, a non-profit located in Haifa, Israel. Combat intolerance with dialogue, exploring the rich, diverse culture of the city. You will see historic mosques and synagogues, and the “Museum Without Walls,” meant to signify unity in a multicultural city. The Center seeks to bring people together in a climate that increasingly tries to force locals to choose a side.

Ultimately, we hope as tourists that we gain a better understanding of the communities we visit, and leave locals with a sense that they learned something as well. That’s why it’s always best to respect the local culture and leave biases at the door (and, if you’re lucky, have a knowledgeable guide with you at all times).

CONTRIBUTED BY Emily Lyda Menton.

Wellness Travel: Obsessed With Olives in Italy

January 14, 2016 by  

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picking olives

Photo: Victoria Kurylo/Shutterstock

I’m a pretty unoriginal traveler. I’ve been fortunate to travel through most of Europe and have a very long list of spots I’d love to go one day — China, South America and Portland, to name a few; but every opportunity I get, I just keep going back to Italy.

My love affair with this land of wine, pasta and olives began during a college study abroad program. From there I became a tour guide, showing guests around my home of NYC but also bringing groups of Americans who shared my thirst for Tuscany’s sour cherry sangiovese, Sicilian citrus and countryside-inspired olive oil adorned tables to Italy. It was an amazing experience, but to be honest after five years of regular visits — not to mention countless wine tours and cooking lessons — I soon realized I didn’t want to tour around the country anymore. I wanted to BE there, punto.

So, when the opportunity arose to help with the olive harvest on a good family friend’s farm in Rome’s countryside, Castelli Romani, I bought my plane ticket the next day.

Did I mention that I’m absolutely obsessed with olive oil?

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Photo: Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock

A Typical Day On An Olive Farm

7:30am: I’d be up and dressed, grabbing a quick breakfast of milk and cereal with tea and honey made from the farm’s apiary just in front of the house. After breakfast I’d head out the back door where two of the family dogs would greet me and escort me out to the olive fields, just behind the house. There, I’d meet with the other workers — the majority of which were older, Italian men — and help them spread out nets underneath the trees to catch the falling fruits.

8am: The actual picking of the olives was women’s work back in the day. My host explained that the field would be filled with women picking olives and singing songs, which he’d demonstrate.

I used a plastic rake to comb the branches like hair, letting the olives fall onto the ground, and was eventually upgraded to the machine — which, by the way, was very exciting — vibrating combs on a long pole that you could use to reach the taller branches.

After we’d gather up the nets and pour the fallen olives into baskets which would then dump into the a cart pulled by an old tractor.

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Photo: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

10:30am: We’d take seats on the upturned baskets underneath the trees and take a break for panini (thin cut prosciutto or mortadella on fresh bread) and “young” wine made in my host’s grotto, which he’d serve from a simple glass bottle.

Once sufficiently satiated (and just slightly buzzed) the picking continued until we filled the cart, then transporting it to the local mill. Here we’d dump the olives and get a processing time. That way we could come back when they were ready to process the olives to be able to watch — and monitor — each step.

12:30pm: Very unlike American factories, you could walk right up to the machinery. On one side of the mill they had a more modern set up with machines, while the other had the old school mill and press. My host chose the old school way; as in our olives were ground to a paste by a stone mill, pressed to let the juices out and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.

He insisted I stick my finger under the spout as the oil poured from the centrifuge into our caster containers. It was magical.

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Photo: Surkov Dimitri/Shutterstock

1:30pm: After a huge lunch set up outside — everything harvested on the farm, from the meat to the vegetables to the oil — I’d spend the rest of the day hanging around and tagging along on errands with my host. With no phone, no internet and no work I was able to fully immerse myself in the experience of living like a local in Italy. We’d grab meat for dinner from the butcher, head into town to grab an espresso and walk around the piazza to catch up with his friends or visit his grotto to check on the wine.

My favorite stop was to a “hardware store” — actually a man’s garage. Here, after grabbing some tools, my host left a soda bottle sample of his young wine for the hardware man to analyze, which was his other business, to see if anything needed to be added while it matured.

10:30pm: After an early dinner (for Rome, anyway) I’d shower, practice some yoga, then hop into bed for a book where I’d read for at least an hour before turning the lights out. All things I never have time for at home.

After the week I was stronger (from the picking), healthier (from all the farm-fresh food), calmer, happier and more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.

For me, travel shows how other people live around the world, allowing me to choose what I think works best for me to have a happy, healthy, fun and balanced life. A week picking olives in Italy was all I needed to remind me how important leisure is.

Which reminds me, it’s time for my afternoon coffee break.

By Nikki Padilla 

Top Yoga & Wellness Retreats For Your Bucket List

January 10, 2016 by  

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Let’s take a look at some of the greatest  yoga retreats and wellness escapes from around the world, at least the ones we love. This list compiles a variety of trips that include traditional retreats with more unusual trips, for example, yoga on a windjammer or in the jungles of Nicaragua. All of these trips take place in eco-conscious locations and, of course, serve delicious, healthy food to fuel your practice.

Crossing the Threshold Retreat in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Brown.

Crossing the Threshold Retreat in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Brown.

1. Crossing The Threshold 2016 Retreat (Playa Maderas, Nicaragua)

Celebrate the Spring Equinox in Playa Maderas with Elizabeth Brown of Steeped in Grace’s Crossing the Threshold retreat. Twice each day enjoy outdoor yoga and meditation classes, refining your poses to the sounds of tropical birds and howler monkeys. Afternoons are free for swimming, surfing, snorkeling, shopping in Granada, relaxing in hammocks or visiting the local surf legion for a massage.

Meals feature locally grown, organic produce and fresh fish eaten family style, while accommodations are eco-friendly treehouse bungalows. With no electricity between 9am and 5pm, you’ll be encouraged to power off your devices and enjoy the natural beauty around you.

This 7-night retreat is from March 12-19th at Buena Vista Surf Club and costs $1,200.

Join Saya in India.

Join Saya for yoga in India. Photo courtesy of the Trip Trotter.

2. A Sojourn of the Soul Yoga Retreat (Southern India)

Travel to India, the birthplace of yoga, and join Trip Trotter and Travel Scope India to return to a life of balance. The Indian philosophy encourages you to treat your body as a temple by consuming the right food and incorporating correct breath, meditation and posture. You’ll also have a number of immersive experiences like shopping at local markets, nature walks, exploring Tibetan settlements, visiting stone carvers in Mysore, and exploring coconut and coffee plantations as you move from Bangalore to Coorg to Bekal. You’ll also learn about Ayurveda — “the science of life” — which is ancient instructions to maintain health through therapy, massage, herbal medicines, proper diet and exercise.

This 11-day retreat costs approximate $3,880 per person.

Studio at Adler Mountain Lodge. Photo courtesy of Adler Mountain Lodge.

Studio at Adler Mountain Lodge. Photo courtesy of Adler Mountain Lodge.

3. Yoga Retreat At Adler Mountain Lodge (The Dolomites, Italy)

You’ll feel enlightened at soon as you arrive to the stunning Adler Mountain Lodge and its inspiring mountaintop location. The lodge took 10 years to build, consciously using sustainable and organic construction methods to immerse guests in UNESCO World Heritage-recognized natural beauty. The main lodge houses the reception, a cozy lounge with open fireplace, spacious sun terrace, restaurant, wellness and spa facilities, infinity pool and 18 guest suites, all strategically placed to maximize panoramic views of the Dolomites. Higher up the slope there are 12 two-story guest chalets made entirely of spruce wood to give them an authentic mountain feeling. Bonus: room rates includes complementary sunrise and sunset yoga at least three times per week week, access to spa and wellness facilities, and optional seasonal activities such as guided skiing, hiking and mountain biking.

In November, Adler Mountain Lodge presents a special yoga week that includes meditation, mindful walking, gentle physical exercise and candle meditation. Guests can stay three days or for the whole week November 23-30, 2016. Rates for the week start at $1,706. Outside of yoga week, room rates start at $255 per night.

Paddleboard Meditation. Photo courtesy of La Conquistador.

Paddleboard Meditation. Photo courtesy of La Conquistador.

4. Wellness Retreat (Fajardo, Puerto Rico)

El Conquistador Resort & Las Casitas Village, Waldorf Astoria Resorts in Puerto Rico offers three-night wellness retreats throughout the year in an eco-conscious venue. Choose a theme for your retreat, including activities like beach workouts on the resort’s 100-acre private Palomino Island, twilight yoga classes in the outdoor labyrinth, zip lining in the nearby El Yunque Rainforest, biobay tours through luminescent waters and more. Also included are raw foods, juicing or farm-to-table cooking class and a spa treatment, either a hot-stone massage, poultice massage or tropical bliss scrub and massage.

Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association recently honored this resort as the 2015 Large Green Hotel of the Year for its commitment to environmental conservation. Their efforts include using locally harvested ingredients for meals, an on-site green house and herb garden, biodegradable products and more.

Single occupancy rates for the three-night retreat start at $1,600. All retreats include accommodations, airport transfers, nutritious meals, activities, spa access with eucalyptus saunas, waterfall Jacuzzis, an Organic Tea lounge, daily exercises class and a fitness center, one spa service plus 20% off additional spa services or at the spa boutique, and a personalized fitness plan to take home.

Writing at Breakfast in Costa Rica.

Writing at Breakfast in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Pink Pangea.

5. Yoga & Writing Workshops for Women (Alajuela, Costa Rica)

Does yoga help get your creative juices flowing? Pink Pangea runs yoga retreats for women all over the world. Their upcoming retreat in Costa Rica combines hatha yoga classes, writing workshops, rafting and eco-tours. Guests also get to stay at Pura Vida Spa, an eco-friendly and stunning resort in Alajuela inspiring relaxation, and hopefully, writing.

The week long retreat runs from January 30-February 6 and rates start at $1355.

Training. Photo courtesy of Surf Camps.

Training in Portugal. Photo courtesy of Surf Camps.

6. Yoga & Surfing (Portugal)

Ride351 offers a variety of active travel tours through Portugal. Yoga lovers will appreciate Surf Plus Yoga, a week of playful movement in the best waves of Peniche, Ericeira and Cascais.

Mornings wbegin with a surf lesson before interacting with the locals, appreciating the culture and the gastronomy of the local camps in Óbidos, Mafra and Sintra. Each night, wind down with a yoga class. Two of the three eco-friendly camp resorts serve organic food, and local restaurants provide the rest of the meals and incorporate traditional dishes.

The prices start at $1,010 per person for the full week-long retreat, including five surf and yoga lessons, equipment rental, accommodation, meals, cultural visits and more. The next retreat is March 21-27 but many are offered throughout the year.

Superfood at Gracious Living retreat. Photo courtesy of Gracious Living.

Superfood at Gracious Living retreat. Photo courtesy of Gracious Living.

7. Superfood Yoga Retreat (Little Corn Island, Nicaragua)

Join Gracious Living Lifestyle for a superfood-themed week-long yoga retreat in Nicaragua. Each day enjoy organic, clean, fresh foods from the earth to complement yoga classes. The specially designed menu will include fresh juices, green juices, plant based smoothies, plant proteins, medicinal mushrooms, adaptogenic herbs, organic fresh vegetables and fruits grown from the on-site garden and greenhouse. This healthy menu pairs perfectly with daily lectures led by a holistic nutritionist and anti-stress coach. Though, can you really stress when staying in eco-chic cabañas nestled among beachfront coco-palms?

This week long, all-inclusive retreat will take placeFeb 20-27, 2016. Rates start at $2,084.

Retreat leader Soyela Safer. Photo courtesy of Samata Magazine.

Retreat leader Soyela Safer. Photo courtesy of Samata Magazine.

8.  Shantisim & Standup Paddleboard (Jaco, Costa Rica)

For a real change of pace and an enlightening change of perspective, join Samata Magazine and leader Soyela Shafer in the rich, old shanty town of Jaco, Costa Rica.  This Central Costa Rica location will allow guests to experience the old town balance, peace and connection of Shantisism in a relaxing, warm environment. Ten women will enjoy the best of Costa Rica’s warmth, coast and outdoor beauty at CampVista Guava, which has an outdoor meditation center and a beachside pool at Playa Hermosa.

In addition to practicing traditional yoga, Soyela will teach attendees simple wave riding, stand up paddle boarding, SUP yoga and hula hooping.  Moreover, you can take home over a thousand dollars worth of apparel, suncare and organic food products.

The retreat will take place from April 3rd-9th, 2016. Price: $2,500 including all meals, 1 night out for dinner in town, transportation, accommodations, surfboards, SUP’s, sun & skin care, apparel, swimwear, foot and head wear.

Domestic

Yoga class on the boat. Photo courtesy of Angelique.

Sailboat yoga. Photo courtesy of Angelique.

9. Yoga On A Sailboat (Camden, Maine)

For a unique yoga getaway, try stretching and strengthening aboard Windjammer Angelique, an eco-conscious boat offering serenity at sea. The Yoga & Wellness cruise aboard Angelique is designed for guests who want to combine a Maine sailing vacation with yoga instruction, with all levels welcome. Bonus: organic vegetarian or fish meals help support the great work they will be doing for their body and soul.

The three-day retreat on August 7-10, 2016 costs $750 per person with all meals, activities, accommodations included.

Group yoga at Wanderlust 2013. Photo courtesy of Ali Kaukas.

Group yoga at Wanderlust 2013. Photo courtesy of Ali Kaukas.

10. Wanderlust Festival (Oahu, Hawaii)

This four-day festival celebrates mindful living with workshops on meditation, vegan cooking, sustainable living and spirituality. Yoga classes are the main focus of the retreat, but you can also try paddle boarding, hiking and horseback riding. Choose from an assortment of traditional and innovative yoga classes like standup paddleboard or aerial yoga. Play around with a variety of settings by checking out their various venues: feel the energy of hundreds of yogis practicing together outdoors, practice on a mountain top at 6,000 feet, or drop into an small, indoor class and move to live music.

Wanderlust 2016 will take place at Turtle Bay Resort in North Shore Oahu, Hawaii, from Feb. 26th-28th for $99 per day.

 

Exploring Atlanta’s Cocktail Scene, Japanese Style!

January 4, 2016 by  

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Himitsu cocktails

Atlanta‘s best-kept drinks secret may, in fact, be Japanese. Above photo: Himitsu cocktails. Photo: Angie Mosier

Newly developed cocktail bar Himitsu is the brainchild of Farshid Arshid and Shingo Gokan, who are working with Atlanta craft cocktail artisan T. Fable Jeon and sushi chef Fuyuhiko Ito, the chef behind Arshid’s other project, Umi. For their new, upscale venture, a distinct philosophy is being put into place, one that combines the art of Japanese hospitality and holds true to the local Southern flair.

Umi: Bringing Craft Sushi to Atlanta

Before Himitsu, there was Umi; in the creation of this restaurant, Arshid learned many of the things he would need to know in developing his later venture.

When it came to creating Umi, it wasn’t until Arshid, a veteran music professional, met Ito San that he discovered his calling. First a patron of Ito San’s former sushi restaurant, Arshid became a self-described “patron” — comparable to Renaissance patrons of the arts — when the restaurant where Ito San was working closed. Arshid decided that a master such as Ito San needed a place for him to exercise his craft, and he decided he would be the person to create it.

Yellowtail, jalapeño, yuzu, cilantro

Yellowtail, jalapeño, yuzu, and cilantro. Photo: Emily Monaco

“Even when the restaurant closed, we thought it would reopen,” says Arshid. “But three or four months went by, they couldn’t reopen, and eventually I was like — this is not gonna happen. It would be truly a crime if Ito San wound up like, working at some generic place making maki rolls, because it would happen! If there’s no platform for you…”

Instead of allowing this fate to unfold, Arshid decided to create a unique locale for Ito San, a locale that became Umi. Umi is an upscale Japanese restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. When creating the menu, Arshid and Ito San took inspiration from such famed chefs as Nobu San, but many of the dishes are inspired from Ito San’s unique approach to Japanese cuisine.

chef Fuyuhiko Ito

Umi chef Fuyuhiko Ito. Photo: Emily Monaco

“This is a sushi bar, so Japanese cuisine,” Ito San explains. “But I have a passion for French cuisine,” he says. “If I want to do it, I just do it.”

sashimi

sashimi. Photo: Emily Monaco

His blend of Japanese flavors and French technique creates such dishes as Maine lobster with soy butter prepared à la meunière or foie gras with wasabi soy sauce, caviar and gold leaf that just melts in your mouth. But both Ito San and Arshid are also wary of encouraging first-time diners to delve straight into these more unique dishes.

salmon nigiri, crème fraiche, caviar and aioli

Salmon nigiri, crème fraiche, caviar and aioli. Photo: Emily Monaco

“I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make. They order wrong or they don’t know how to order, and they might have a bad experience,” says Arshid. “I try to tell the staff, ‘If they don’t know what they’re doing, start them super safe, and then let the palate develop.’” He claims that this is something that Ito San has always done automatically and is one of the reasons that they work so well together. Indeed, in an age where many chefs are more concerned with ego than experience, it’s refreshing to have a chef who wants to put the client first. It was this philosophy that Arshid wanted to continue to develop with his new venture.

Himitsu: The Secret Of Hospitality

Himitsu is Japanese for secret, but Arshid was willing to share a few of his ideas about this new venture, particularly its cultivation of “tanashi,” which Arshid describes as grace, humility, and hospitality first. In a day and age when it seems as though we’re pulling away from one another, this person-ability is refreshing.

“You can’t really teach it; it’s just a culture,” Arshid says of taniashi. “If you’re in service, it’s all about respect and taking care of the client.”

chef Fuyuhiko Ito

Umi chef Fuyuhiko Ito. Photo: Emily Monaco

Sounds a little bit like the old adage, “the customer is always right,” right? Not so, according to Arshid, or at least not necessarily. Arshid finds that the modern attitude of judging a client for what they like has removed some of the hospitality from the industry, making it less pleasant to go out and enjoy yourself.

“A guy that works at some night club two years ago now went and got some tattoos and wears a plaid shirt and then he’s a mixologist now,” Arshid says. “Like literally two years ago, he was like doing gin and tonic out of a fountain, you know what I mean?”

This will not be the case at Himitsu, Arshid says, where the client is always right. After all, Himitsu was first born because Umi was losing its personable touch. The restaurant, overwhelmed with reservations, had patrons spilling into the bar area, which Arshid found unacceptable. He decided he needed to create a place where Umi patrons could finish their evening in the same tranquil atmosphere they found in the restaurant, thus the creation of Himitsu.

Himitsu interior

Himitsu interior. Photo: Emily Andrews

“Our thing was like, you should have whatever you want to have, but we’re going to serve you the best way,” he says.

Saucy Sips

Himitsu cocktails

Himitsu cocktails. Photo: Angie Mosier

And what about the drinks? Those fall into the purview of Jeon, who Arshid met when he was doing a cocktail and sushi pairing. At first, Arshid was wary of his “mixologist” title, worrying that it might be overwhelming for patrons just looking to enjoy themselves. “I don’t need the chatter,” Arshid says. “It’s great to inform people, but you don’t really want to be preached to.”

Luckily, this was not the case with Jeon, who came to Atlanta specifically for the purpose of crafting the 10-12 seasonal cocktails, which will be changed twice a year. The cocktails will ideally be paired with chef Ito San’s food, a talent that Ito San said is so acute, “The cocktail becomes almost like a sauce.”

A Table-Touch City

But even being this tuned into the food, Jeon had one weakness: he wasn’t from Atlanta.

The variety of hospitality that is capitalized upon here at Himitsu is very Japanese in its inspiration, and yet Arshid, an Atlanta native, notes that being present in the local culture is just as  — if not more — important.

himitsu

umi. Photo: Emily Monaco

“It’s a table-touch city, and that part of it is very much the south,” Arshid says. “They don’t like outside groups for some reason, because I think they don’t like people coming and opening up and leaving. Every successful restaurant is local. They really support local.”

That’s why Arshid found it so important to have Jeon come and concoct his cocktails in Atlanta proper. “He had his own thoughts, but once he came here and spent some time here, we kind of introduced him to the culture here,” he says. “And we were like, hey, peach is the state fruit. It’s cool — without making it cheesy — when it’s peach season, it’ll be great to have something that has peach in it.”

The combination of international and local inspiration has made Arshid’s two addresses some of the hottest on the luxury Atlanta scene, but the keys to his success can — and should — be translated to businesses in any price bracket: an attention to the comfort and desires of the customer, a willingness to seek out perfection, and a true sensibility to local culture.

Have you visited Himitsu in Atlanta? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

 

Reliving All Things French in Vietnamese Food

January 2, 2016 by  

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vietnamese cuisine

You’ve likely never even considered comparing French onion soup with Vietnamese pho or ban xeo with French crêpes, and yet there’s a good reason to do so: modern Vietnamese food has been heavily influenced by one of Europe’s most popular cuisines.

As for how and why… well, that’s a bit of a longer story.

Why The Link Between French & Vietnamese Food?

The link between these two cuisines stems from the colonial history of Vietnam.

Franco-Vietnamese relations started as early as the 17th century, with the arrival of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam. But it didn’t end there. France would eventually colonize Vietnam and Cambodia, forming the Indochinese Union in 1887, which would solidify French influence in Vietnam for the next 70 years.

vietnamese cuisine

Through 1954, when the French evacuated Vietnam following the Geneva Accord of the same year, there was a French presence in Vietnam, a presence that included cultural ramifications that are evident even today in the country. These cultural ramifications are particularly obvious when observing the architecture of cities like Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon, where buildings like the Saigon Opera House belie the French colonial influence of the period.

But nothing is more evocative of the persistent influence of French culture in Vietnam than in the effects on the cuisine of the country.

Vietnamese Food Before French Colonization

But before examining the French influence, it’s important to delve into the culinary heritage of Vietnam before colonization. It is, after all, a combination of both influences that gives us modern Vietnamese cuisine today.

Before the French arrived, Vietnam already had a diverse culinary history and culture. Vietnamese cuisine developed with influence from neighboring countries, particularly China. You will find evidence of Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines influencing one another in, for example, the presence of wontons and wheat noodles in both cuisines, as well as in the use of New World vegetables like chili peppers and corn, which were present in the Ming Dynasty and made their way to Vietnam.

vietnamese cuisine

But Vietnamese cuisine also has several unique factors, one of which is the philosophy that is central to concocting a recipe.

The Vietnamese ideal for cuisine is in balancing five taste elements — spice, sour, bitter, salt and sweet. According to Vietnamese culinary tradition, each of the tastes corresponds with an organ of the body, in order, gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and bladder.

The importance of the number five doesn’t stop there. Cooks also try to include five types of nutrients — powder, water, minerals, protein and fat, as well as five colors — white, green, yellow, red and black — in each dish. The resulting dishes are balanced and colorful, attractive to both the eye and the tongue.

This sense of culinary balance extends to a balance between “heating” and “cooling” properties of ingredients, properties that might not be immediately obvious to western diners. Duck meat, for example, is considered cool, and is thus served in summer with ginger, perceived as warm. Chicken, on the other hand, is a warm food, so it’s usually eaten in the winter, and served with a sour sauce, which is considered cool.

While these characteristics of Vietnamese cuisine predate French influence, they’re integral to understanding Vietnamese as a whole.

So Where Do The French Come In?

French colonialism in Vietnam left its mark in several ways.

When French colonists arrived in Vietnam, they brought several ingredients that did not yet exist in the East, such as asparagus and potatoes. The words for these ingredients evoke their origins: asparagus are known as Măng tây, or Western bamboo shoots. They are seen as a special occasion sort of vegetable; asparagus soup is a very common first course for weddings.

Potatoes are yet another vegetable introduced by the French, which is surprising in and of itself, because until Antoine Parmentier popularized them in the 18th century, a century before colonization, the French believed that potatoes were unfit for human consumption and used them as food for farm animals, especially pigs. Potatoes are called khoai tây or Western yam in Vietnamese, and while they are quite common, they’re not nearly as popular as local sweet potatoes.

Onions are one of the backbones of French cuisine. Known as hành tay or Western shallots in Vietnamese, they’re often quick-pickled and used as a garnish for other dishes.

vietnamese cuisine

Coffee is yet another ingredient you’ll find more commonly in Vietnam than in surrounding areas. The French had started drinking coffee in the 1600s when it was introduced from the Middle East and brought it with them to Vietnam 200 years later. It was quickly adapted into the local cuisine and culture, largely because Vietnam has an excellent climate for growing coffee — the proof: today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter. As opposed to French coffee, which is usually served hot and black as espresso or with steamed milk as café au lait, Vietnamese coffee is usually drunk cold and sweetened with condensed milk.

But coffee is also a great example of how the locals in Vietnam absorbed the French influence. It wasn’t in accepting it as-is, but rather in integrating these new additions in their own way, tailoring the ingredients to their way of eating and cooking.

vietnamese cuisine

Cooked cream desserts like bánh flan, whose name and appearance belies its origins as crème caramel, are present in Vietnamese cooking. Often made with coconut milk instead of the milk and cream mixture used in France, the Vietnamese version of the dessert is flavored not with caramel but with coffee, an innovation that makes it extremely popular.

The same goes for bread. Bread is not common in East Asia, but when the French colonists arrived in Vietnam, you can bet they came armed with baguettes. The Vietnamese adapted this bread and began using it in their local cuisine; you can find Vietnamese baguettes even today on pretty much every corner.

vietnamese cuisine

The other main difference between the two baguettes is in the style of the bread itself; while the Vietnamese style of baguette is similar to the French baguette, it is made with rice flour instead of wheat flour, giving it a wholly distinct flavor and texture. These baguettes are used as the base of one of the most famous Vietnamese dishes worldwide, banh mi. The sandwiches contain a combination of grilled meat, coriander, pickled vegetables and pâté, a true amalgam of the Vietnamese penchant for fresh herbs and crisp, raw vegetables and the French influences of pâté and meat.

A similar story is that of banh patê so, a clear carryover from Brittany’s meat pies. As though the influence wasn’t clear enough through the use of puff pastry to make these pies, the name is absolutely reminiscent of paté chaud, the Breton name of the dish. Other phonetically similar names like this exist in Vietnamese culinary culture, including dăm bông (jambon or ham), and xúc xích (saucisse or sausage).

vietnamese cuisine

But perhaps the most surprising French influence in Vietnamese cuisine is the soup that seems emblematic of the cuisine itself: pho. Pho is a combination of Vietnamese rice noodles and French meat broths; some even say that the name pho, pronounced fuh, may be a Vietnamese appropriation of the French pot au feu or stew. The presence of beef — tripe, thinly cut raw steak and meatballs — further belies the European influence in this case, as beef is uncommon in other Eastern cuisines.

Not all similarities are quite so clear-cut, however. While the two cuisines couldn’t be more distinct at first glance, they share far more than meets the eye, regardless of history.

For instance, while the French are famous for the pungent aromas of garlic, onion and cheese in their cuisine, Vietnamese cooking, devoid in large part of dairy products, is famous for its fish sauce, which, like many cheeses, is supposed to only get better the more pungent an aroma it has.

While it may have appropriated some characteristics from the French, today’s Vietnamese cuisine is unique, a blend of these 19th century influences and the long history that preceded them.

Contributed by Emily Monaco 

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