Posts Tagged ‘Food’

10 street foods you must try in Singapore

Chef Jon Ashton samples Singapore's street food © Jon Ashton

When Chef Jon Ashton landed in multicultural Singapore as part of his 5-week-long food tour of Southeast Asia, he had exactly 36 hours to eat his way through dozens of hawker stalls. “I did the most eating I’ve ever done in that time,” he said. “When you get food that is so bloody tasty, it hits your lips and it’s like the best kiss you’ve ever had in your life. You just want more.”

So how did he do it? “I am a clever eater and I wanted to try everything,” said the British-born chef of working his way through Singapore’s legendary street food sold from stalls that line huge food court-like emporiums. Armed with a notebook and his brother filming Jon’s interactions, Jon simply asked at each stand if he could watch them cook and take notes. “I told them I had many other hawker stalls to taste that day and they understood,” he said, managing to only consume a few bites of each dish.

Eating was not the only purpose of his trip. As chef contributor to Parade magazine, Crystal Cruises guest chef for the past nine years, and the host of hundreds of live cooking events around the country, Chef Jon wanted to better himself as a chef.

“I want to evolve and grow my portfolio,” he said. “I wanted to cook in villages with ingredients I’d never seen. I want to have that integrity in my work. If someone is watching me on television or taking time to read a recipe I’ve written, I want that person to trust me. Ingredients are often expensive, so if you buy them, I want you to trust that they will work for you,” he said.

“One of the most exciting things about that entire trip was seeing the food stalls and meeting the people behind them,” said Jon. “Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the most famous chefs in the world have restaurants there. But the inexpensive hawker stalls are where the excitement is; the food coming out of them is exceptional. You see the lady who is 90 years old who has probably been at that stall for most of her life.”

Always a fan of starting at the source, Jon urges one splurge while visiting the city-state island at the tip of the Malay peninsula: slipping into a seat at the Long Bar at Raffles Singapore Hotel to sip the national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, created right there in 1915. “It’s something you have to do, like going to Harry’s Bar in Venice,” says Jon.

What else shouldn’t you miss? Check out Jon’s list below, including tips on where to try most dishes.

See Jon in action at his website, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Hainanese Chicken Rice and Curry Mee © Jon Ashton

1 Chili crab

As the luxurious ambassador of Singaporean food, chili crab is the national star. Sweet crab is cracked into several pieces before being placed in a deep fryer. In the wok, a dizzying array of chilies, tomatoes, garlic and shallots sizzle over hot flames. Soy sauce, chicken stock and sugar syrup form an aromatic bouquet. Whisked egg and cornstarch slurry thicken the gravy with bands of silky ribbons. The savory marriage of the fleshy, satisfying crab, doused in thick sauce yields the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and spicy. The last bits of sauce are always best soaked up with soft, doughy Chinese rolls.

2 Hainanese chicken rice

Originating in Hainan, a tropical island off China’s southern coast, Hainanese chicken rice has become a culinary staple in Malaysian culture. Served simply on a lime green plastic plate, succulent boiled chicken is roughly chopped and delightfully served on top of a heap of the most fragrant rice ever tasted. Each grain had its own identity: fluffy, aromatic, distinctive. Best completed with drizzled soy and chili sauce, the tender, boneless chicken dish is perfectly complemented with a frosty mug of Tiger beer.

TRY IT: Join the long lines at Tian Tian Chicken Rice, located in the hawker food court Maxwell Food Centre, near Chinatown.

3 Pork soup dumplings

Sexy thin-skinned wrappers become small joyful parcels of pork filled with rich broth. Once slightly cooled and placed on a spoon, you can slurp the whole dumpling up in one mouthful.

TRY IT: Ji Ji Wanton Noodle Specialist in Maxwell Food Centre. (Added Jon: “Lovely man, excellent, yes!”)

4 Clay pot chicken

Decadent curry packed with chicken wings that add collagen, which emulsifies the fat into the sauce. Pillows of starchy potatoes swim across a burnt orange basin laden with idiosyncratic curry leaves.

5 Laksa (or curry mee)

Laksa is the happy marriage of Malay and Chinese influences. Spicy coconut curry drowned in gorgeous rice noodles.

TRY IT: Famous Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa, on the second floor of the Hong Lim Market & Food Centre.
Clay Pot Chicken, Pork Soup Dumplings, and Chili Crab © Jon Ashton

6 Char kuay teow

Broad rice noodles fried with black soya sauce, fish cake, Chinese sausage and clams. Singapore noodles can go up against the Italian noodle, with a nice bite to them. The wok heat gives them a smoky taste.

TRY IT: Marina South Delicious Food, stall 35, at Maxwell Food Centre.

7 Hokkien prawn mee

Flat egg noodles with a medley of chicken, pork, squid, and prawns.

TRY IT: Lor Mee, stall 178, at Tiong Bahru Market.

8 Chicken satay

What’s better than skewered, grilled chicken in a bath of peanut sauce, with a side of cold cumber relish? Delightful.

TRY IT: Multiple stalls at Satay by the Bay put their spin on these tasty skewers.

9 Roti prata & teh tarik

Buttery, flaky flat bread stretched and cooked on a griddle, usually dipped in a rich curry, serves as a wonderful breakfast washed down by a cup of Teh Tarik or “pulled tea.” Pulled tea requires great skill as the hot liquid, combined with sweetened condensed milk, is transferred in a sweeping motion from one cup to the other until properly frothy and delicious.

10 Half boiled egg with kaya toast

Breakfast staple with a soft centered yolky egg blanketed with light soy sauce and white pepper powder. Dish is served with toasted bread smeared with sweet coconut jam.

TRY IT: Kaya toast is so popular it’s part of the coffee house staple, from Ya Kun—in business since 1944—to the chain Killiney Kopitaim, with roots back to the oldest Hainanese coffee shop in Singapore. In other words, where there’s coffee, there’s kaya toast.

For your own delicious taste of Singapore, check out our variety of adventures to the city state.

Jon on his food tour © Jon Ashton

Japan: A Top Destination for Foodies

Japan. Beyond sushi: foodie heaven

SushiIf you live to eat and enjoy exploring food culture around the world, Japan should be at the top of your travel wish list.

In Japan, cooking is an art guided by centuries-old culinary traditions, but there are also modern chefs adding new twists to longtime favorites. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the very high end to inexpensive day-to-day treats. Whatever you prefer, there are foods to excite every kind of eater.

Japanese chef © JNTOJapanese chefs train for decades to perfect the work that they do. And this dedication pays off: Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, more than Paris and New York combined. Food is so important to Japanese culture that the United Nation’s cultural organization, UNESCO, recently added traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It was only the second national cuisine to be given this honor, after France.

Japanese chefs use only seasonal and top-quality ingredients. Simplicity is key, and they do as little as possible to fresh ingredients to bring out the color and flavor. Umami, the rich flavor profile prized in Japanese cooking, is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, and bonito (fish) broth. The food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

In Japan, seafood is king and sushi lovers should take advantage of some of the freshest fish you will ever eat. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi. Here are a few examples:

  • Yakitori © JNTORichly marbled Wagyu beef, often considered the finest in the world
  • Yakitori, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled over hot coals
  • Tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in bread crumbs
  • Okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes
  • Soba, udon, and ramen noodle soups

Japanese sweets © JNTOIf you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Japan. Each region has different styles of traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in convenience stores and train stations, and come in beautifully wrapped boxes because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. In the Kyoto area, look for yatsuhashi—thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste. Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture is known for soybean production, so you’ll find edamame used in many local sweets, including ice cream and even Kit Kat bars!

Wine lovers will love trying sake, or Japanese rice wine. Sake has been brewed for over 2,000 years and the flavors vary greatly based on where it is made and the natural characteristics of the rice and water. Spirit and beer lovers should try local whiskey and craft beers, both growing in popularity.

Here are some unique food experiences to add to your list:

  • Kaiseki Ryori © JNTOKaiseki Ryori, a refined multicourse meal with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is best experienced in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel where the meal is served in your room.
  • Kawadoko ryori, a unique summer dining experience where you enjoy your meal seated on a platform built over a flowing stream.
  • Shojin ryori, the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks served in a Zen temple.
  • Traditional Japanese tea service, to learn the ceremonial ritual and art of hand-grinding matcha green tea
  • Visiting local markets: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest wholesale fish market that sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In Kyoto, check out Nishiki Market, a centuries old gourmet market that lets you sample all the local specialties.
  • Browsing the food stalls in a Japanese department store. The lowest levels are dedicated to specialty foods and offer many unique items, including beautifully packaged sweets and prized varieties of fruits, including melons fetching over $200 each!
  • Mingling with locals after work at the neighborhood izakaya, a casual bar that serves small plates of food.
  • Sampling international cuisine and foods you know from home—Japanese chefs often find ways to put their own unique touch on international classics.
  • The most adventurous eaters can try fugu, a poisonous blowfish. The dish has to be expertly prepared to be safe to eat, but it’s one of Japan’s finest delicacies.

Kaiseki Ryori © JNTODishes vary across the regions of Japan, but wherever you go you are sure to find something unique and delicious. So pack your appetite and a willingness to try something new on one of Friendly Planet’s tours to Japan — you won’t be disappointed!

Cassie Kifer is a freelance travel & food writer from the the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the founder of Ever In Transit, an adventure & culinary travel blog offering travel tips, stories, and photography from destinations around the world. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

South African Explorer Series: 7 foods you can’t miss

To everyone who loves travel, exploring local cuisine is one of the best aspects of visiting a new place. And as we’ve been covering all things South Africa because we’re giving away a free trip for two to this fascinating locale on our Facebook page (now closed), we couldn’t help bringing you our take on the “hit list” of South African foods in this installment of our South African Explorer Series.

South Africa’s cuisine has Malay, Dutch, French, British, Indian and Eastern European influences, which, when combined with locally available food, results in a unique assortment of tasty treats. Here are seven of the most popular and delicious foods available in South Africa.

Braai (Pronounced as in “rye”). The most popular type of food in South Africa is braai, which is Afrikaans for “barbecue” or “grill.” It also refers to the social custom of gathering friends and family over for a pot-luck style meal that focuses mainly on barbequed meat. Chicken, pork, beef, lamb, mutton, or “boerewors” (see below) is prepared over an open flame made with wood, charcoal, or briquettes, although using gas has also become more common in recent years.

Braai is often served with pap, a thick type of porridge, along with various sauces, such as Mrs H.S. Ball’s Chutney, a bottled chutney sauce brand that is wildly popular with South Africans. In South Africa, “ketchup” as we know it is referred to as “tomato sauce.” Chutney is used by many South Africans the way Americans use ketchup.

Braai is a very important social custom in South Africa. It’s how locals celebrate Christmas, birthdays, graduations, and special events in their lives. You’ll get plenty of chances to taste Braai when you visit South Africa.

Boerewors (Pronounced bur-eh-vors). This is the most important meat for your braai and practically a national institution. It looks similar to Italian sausage with a very distinctive flavor. But don’t call boerewors “sausage” in South Africa, or you’ll get a hot dog! No self-respecting South African would consider a braai without boerewors, and here’s a tip. You can brush your ‘wors’ with Mrs H.S. Ball’s Chutney before putting it on the braai!

Rusks. You’ll certainly encounter these hard pieces of bread if you travel to South Africa. They’re most commonly served with tea or coffee before a game drive. When you return after your game drive for a hearty South African breakfast, you’ll likely see them on the buffet again. (Rusks taste best dunked in coffee or tea.) 

Rooibos tea (Pronounced roy-boss). The rooibos plant is native to South Africa, and the leaves are used to make one of the country’s most popular drinks — rooibos tea. It’s often served in the same fashion as black tea with milk or sugar, although it is caffeine-free. Rooibos tea is becoming popular around the world for its health benefits, including its antioxidants and phenolic compounds. It’s said to help with tension, allergies, and digestive issues.

Bunny chow. The recipe for bunny chow is simple: curry with mutton, lamb, chicken, or beans in a hollowed-out bread loaf. It’s a delicious treat unique to Durban that dates back to the 1940s. Here are a few tips for ordering your bunny chow: It comes in a quarter, half, or full loaf. According to local slang, simply ask for the size and the kind in one short phrase. If you want a quarter loaf of mutton, say “quarter mutton.” Oh, and yes, Mrs Ball’s Chutney goes well with bunny chow, too!

Biltong (Pronounced bill-tong). This is the national snack of South Africa, and is similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from a variety of meats, such as beef or game. This is eaten at sports games, at home, and anywhere.

Bobotie (Pronounced bor-bor-tee). This is a dish of minced meat with egg topping, similar in consistency to meatloaf. It was among the first dishes created in South Africa that takes influences from both the East and West, and the result is a spicy, flavorful dish. Bobotie has a mild curry flavor and is eaten with rice and Mrs Balls Chutney. If you’re getting the idea that Mrs. Balls Chutney goes with a lot of foods, you’re right! South Africans are known to put it on everything, from bobotie to scrambled eggs.

Braai, bunny chow, bobotie — I’m hungry just thinking about it! Which would you want to try first in South Africa? Let us know in a comment below.

Getaway Dossier: The colors and culture of Cuba

As you might know, we recently received our people-to-people license renewal to travel to Cuba. If you haven’t yet made the trip, boy, is it worthwhile. I recently returned from my first trip to Cuba and had an amazing time. In fact, Cuba was the shortest distance I have ever traveled to enter a whole new world.

Since my return, I’ve had Cuba on my mind, and I thought what better way to share my Cuban enthusiasm than to feature it as my next Getaway Dossier.

The most common things people associate with Cuba are cigars, antique cars, and salsa, but there’s much more to the country than you might imagine. This small island contains some of the most creative, artistic, resourceful, cultural, and friendly people you’ll find anywhere, and that’s before we even get to the colonial cities, unique religions, and plentiful World Heritage sites. To help shed light on this mysterious island, here are some of my recommendations for things to see, do, and know if you’re planning a trip to Cuba.


Getaway Dossier: The side of South America you should see

Machu Picchu

We added three new South American tours to the Friendly Planet mix last week, so for my next Getaway Dossier, I thought I’d share my knowledge about all things South America to help you plan your next trip, whether you’ve already booked it or are considering one.

The most recognizable landmark on this continent is probably the Amazon River, but there’s much more of South America’s natural beauty and ancient history worth seeing. Here are my recommendations for the best things to see, do, and know about South America before the plane leaves the tarmac.

Weather: Opposites attract. Since South America is on the opposite side of the equator from us in the U.S., the seasons are a mirror of ours. When it’s summer here, it’s winter in South America, and vice versa. The most temperate times to visit South America are the spring and the fall, which is when the temperatures are the mildest.

The rainy season is in the summer (December to March). However, the rain doesn’t normally last long on any given day. Lima, located on the western coast, has moderate weather year-round with mild temperatures and cloudy skies. Rio de Janeiro, located on the east coast, is also temperate 12 months out of the year, making it a great place to visit.

In Machu Picchu on the southwest side of the country, and at the Iguazu Falls on the eastern side, the days are warm and humid. If you’re traveling anywhere with higher altitudes, dressing in layers is a must because temperatures will drop significantly at night.

Food: BBQ can’t be beat. South America boasts fantastic tropical fruits, such as coconut, mango, guava, pineapple, papaya, and more. And its seafood can’t be missed, especially in coastal towns. My absolute favorite thing to eat when I’m in Brazil is churrasco, also known as Brazilian barbecue.

Meat is cooked on huge skewers over an open fire. Then, waiters come by your table and slice it hot off the skewer right onto your plate. If your stomach is a bottomless pit, you’ll love this: When you’re ready for seconds, thirds, or fourths, just hit the button on your table and a waiter will be at your side with fresh, hot meat.

Restaurants that serve churrasco appear most typically in Rio de Janeiro and Iguazu, but can be found all over the country as well. If you’re not much of a meat eater, most metropolitan areas offer a varied range of cuisine.

Currency: Tip the right way. Three of the most common countries to visit in South America are Peru, Argentina, and Brazil, and each has its own currency. The currency in Peru is the nuevo sol; in Argentina, it’s the peso; and in Brazil, it’s the real.

In restaurants in Peru, an 18 percent service charge is included in the bill if you pay with a credit card. If you’re paying in cash, there isn’t a fee so you should tip between 5 and 10 percent. In Argentinean restaurants, tip 5 percent of the bill if your service charge was added and 10 percent if it wasn’t. Tip movie ushers and bus terminal porters 1 peso, and air terminal porters 2 pesos per suitcase. As for tipping in Brazil, a 10 percent tip is usually included in the restaurant bill, but you can leave more if your service was especially good.

Tip cab drivers no more than 10 percent, and tip bellboys, porters, or concierges about 1 real per luggage item or for any help they provided.

Iguazu Falls

Landmarks: It’s all about the falls. Iguazu Falls straddles the border of Argentina and Brazil, and consists of 275 smaller falls and islands. They’re believed to be 200,000 years old and are absolutely breathtaking. Be sure to see the falls from both sides. The Argentinian side at Devil’s Throat is the most famous place to take in the spectacular views. There are also boat and helicopter rides that take you up close and personal with this natural beauty (weather permitting). The falls might be the main attraction, but be sure to visit a fantastic bird sanctuary nearby. You can see dozens of exotic species of birds, as well as butterfly and hummingbird exhibits.

Culture: Appreciate the modern and the ancient. South America is a fantastic mix of old and new. It’s inspired by the traditions of its historical culture while keeping in step with modern society. This is one of the aspects that makes the continent so beautiful. When you visit, you’ll see wonderfully modern cities with every imaginable amenity. Then you’ll visit places like Sacred Valley, where the people still honor the traditions of their ancestors in their everyday life.

Don’t forget: Layers, layers, layers. You’ll probably be experiencing significant weather changes from one location to the next, so I’d say the most important thing to remember when traveling to South America is to dress in layers. Make sure you wear good walking shoes, and bring sunscreen and bug repellent. Much of South America is in the rainforest, so you’ll definitely be happy you brought these along!

The tours we offer to these destinations highlight the history and wonder of ancient South America, and the emerging culture of its cities. It’s a beautiful continent and different from anything here in the U.S. — that’s what makes it so special.

For the full itineraries on our three new tours, visit our website. And if you have any questions, write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team.

Getaway Dossier: Mayan culture and history is twice as nice in Guatemala and Honduras

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Mayan culture. Did you know that the Mayan people built entire structures without the use of any work animals, metal tools, or pulley systems?

Mayan architecture is very interesting to me. I’ve enjoyed spending some of my free time, with what little free time I have, learning more about their traditional ways.

It’s estimated that over half of Guatemalans are descendants of indigenous Mayan people. So for my next Getaway Dossier, I decided to focus on two countries rich in Mayan history: Guatemala and Honduras.

They’re both fantastic places to visit to learn more about Mayan culture and history, as well as experience some of the most beautiful natural sights in Central America.

Weather: Warm and tropical. Since Guatemala and Honduras are located between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer, they are warm year-round, but not unbearably hot. For the most part, the climate is moderate, with the lows near 60 degrees and highs near 80 degrees. The rainy season is from May to October. In jungle areas like Tikal, Guatemala, it tends to be more humid than areas like Antigua, Guatemala, where it’s cooler, especially at night. So layers are a great idea when traveling here, especially if you plan on traveling between cities on a given day. Also, a light jacket is a great piece for the cooler nights.

Food: Spanish influences. Pulling from their Spanish and Mayan heritage, some of the food in Guatemala and Honduras is on the spicy side. Most traditional foods contain corn, chiles and beans, as they’re staples in these countries. There’s also a lot of fresh fruit. A favorite dish in Guatemala is tamales. They vary greatly across the country in terms of dough (it could be corn, potatoes, rice), filling (you could find meat, fruits, nuts), and wrapping (usually leaves or husks). Tamales in Guatemala tend to be wrapped in green leaves. Traditionally, tamales are eaten on Saturday, but they can be found any day of the week in most Guatemalan restaurants. Hondurans tend to cook more meat dishes, and they use a lot of coconut in their food. Another favorite meal in Honduras is breakfast. It’s a huge meal, and can have of any or all of the following: eggs, beans, cheese, avocados, sweet fried plantains, tortillas, roasted meat, and Honduran spicy sausages. Most restaurants will offer some of these foods. Or if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal, stop at a street vendor. They often sell delicious breakfast tortillas topped with eggs or meat.

Currency: Tip for tips. Guatemala’s currency is the quetzal and Honduras’ currency is the lempira. However, both countries widely accept the U.S. dollar. In Guatemala, tip is usually included on your restaurant bill. If it’s not, it’s customary to leave 10 percent. Banks generally give the best exchange rates on both cash and traveler’s checks, so be sure to exchange your money at a bank. In Honduras, tip will usually be included on restaurant bills as well, and a 15 percent tip is appropriate if it’s not. Bellhops and other hotel workers are usually knowledgeable about the best local restaurants and sight-seeing attractions. Don’t hesitate to ask for pointers on where to visit, and if they were helpful, tips are greatly appreciated.

Landmarks: UNESCO Sites can’t be missed. There are four UNESCO sites in Guatemala and Honduras and travelers shouldn’t miss the rich history that each offers. There’s Antigua in Guatemala, a beautiful city rich with Spanish colonial history. Quirigua, Guatemala is famed for its sandstone monoliths. The Tikal National Park in Guatemala has one of the most complex pyramids in the entire Maya world. In Honduras, Copan is a renowned archaeological site because it has the longest surviving text of the Mayan civilization. Each site has its own special history and visiting each one will give travelers a well-rounded cultural experience.

Culture: History melds with nature. Guatemala and Honduras have beautiful mixes of Mayan heritage and Spanish colonial history. It’s what makes them so special to visit — the culture cannot be matched anywhere else. The bright colors, delicious food, and good music will make you feel at home right away. Guatemala is well known for souvenirs such as worry dolls and masks, and beautiful, colorful fabrics can be bought in the markets. The Mayans had their own weaving techniques, and each village or area has its own distinct design. You’ll see it all around you when visiting these countries, and this culture is refreshing to experience.

Don’t forget: It’s a jungle out there. Because these countries have mostly jungle climates, bring bug spray, sunscreen, and wear layers. It’s also important to know that the water is safe for bathing, but bottled water is readily available almost everywhere for drinking purposes. Follow these tips, and you’re sure to have a sensational experience in these Central American countries.

If reading all this information about beautiful Guatemala and Honduras makes you want to visit, check out our new Best of Guatemala and Honduras tour. The full itinerary is on our website and you can always reach out to me with any questions you might have about these fascinating, historical countries.

Getaway Dossier: What to know before you go to Turkey

When we introduced our new Taste of Turkey tour last week, there were a lot of things I wanted to tell travelers about Turkey in our press release. Things like, what types of foods are served there? How should you dress? What should you pack? What’s the climate like?

But there’s only so much you can fit into a press announcement.

So I decided to start a series on the blog called Getaway Dossier. Here, I’ll share the information I’ve learned over the years so you can get to know Friendly Planet’s fascinating destinations before you go.

I’ll cover the great places to eat, landmarks to visit, and all the essentials you shouldn’t forget to take with you.

Since Turkey is top of mind, I’ll start there. Here we go!

Weather: Know the seasons. Turkey has the most temperate weather in the spring (April and May) and the fall (September and October). These months are also the busiest tourist seasons. Spring and fall have the least amount of rain and the most comfortable temperatures. In the winter, travelers can take their pick of numerous winter resorts. This is also when you typically find the best travel deals. The country can be quite warm in the summer and travelers should prepare accordingly with sunblock and sunscreen. Overall, it’s a great destination to travel to year round.

Food: Order a cabbage dolma and a doner kebab. A can’t miss Turkish dish is cabbage dolma. It’s a combination of sauteed rice, pine-nuts, currants, spices, and herbs, all tightly wrapped in translucent cabbage leaves. There’s also baklava and many “muhallebis” (pudding shops) with dozens of different types of milk puddings. But my favorite Turkish dish is doner kebabs. They’re made from rotisserie grilled and sliced lamb meat cooked on vertical spits. The edges are shaved off, and the meat is served on a bed of bread, salad, or pilav rice. When you’re in Turkey, you can’t miss these kebabs. They’re a common meal here, and it’s easy to find them in any metropolitan area.

Currency: Lira or euros? The primary currency is the lira, but many stores will post prices in both lira and euros. As with many countries in Europe, Turkey sometimes includes tip on restaurant bills and other services, so check before tipping extra. However, in upscale restaurants, a good practice is to tip 10 percent additional, even if the tip has already been included on the bill. And speaking of tipping, tip porters three million lira and tip tour guides around five to 10 U.S.D.

Landmarks: It’s a grand time at the Grand Bazaar. One of my favorite places in Turkey is the Grand Bazaar. It has over 4,000 shops on 58 covered streets. Any shopper would get lost in the sea of jewelry, rugs, leather goods, tiles, pipes, painted ceramics, and antiques available here, many of which are handmade. Bartering is customary and a good rule of thumb is to initially offer 25 percent of the price you are willing to pay. Most shop keepers are hardworking, honest people but if you do buy an antique, be sure to obtain an official permit to export it.

Don’t forget: Sneaks and sunscreen. Turkey is rich in history and archaeological sites and much of its ancient architecture and cobblestone streets still stand today. While beautiful to experience, this means some walkways can be tricky to navigate. A good pair of walking sneakers or sandals is important for a pleasant sight-seeing experience. Sunscreen and a hat are also great items to bring along, as you will probably spend a decent amount of your time out and about enjoying the history and culture of the country. These are general guidelines for any destination, but are especially important when visiting a country as full of archaeological history as Turkey.

Culture: Modesty is important. Like many European countries, it’s considered respectful to dress modestly when entering a place of religious worship. Women should cover their shoulders and wear modest-length shorts, and everyone should remove their hats and sunglasses inside. In case you’re wearing summer clothes and decide to visit a place of worship while on the go, most will provide a shawl to cover exposed shoulders and legs.

Turkey is a destination for every lover of architecture and history. The country finds its roots in Greek, Roman, and early Christian history. It’s even the site of an epic WWI battle, the Gallipoli Campaign. You’ll notice how it’s Eastern and Western influences mingle in everything you see. Turkey’s language is based in Latin, so English-speakers will have a general understanding of some street signs. However, the tiles of the buildings have a distinguished Eastern influence.

Our Taste of Turkey tour has seven departures leaving from November until March 2012, so there are a lot of opportunities in the future to see what this historic country has to offer. You can visit our website for the full itinerary. And as always, feel free to write to me or call 1-800-555-5765 and speak to our reservations team if you have any questions about booking a trip to Turkey.

My journey through Vietnam (part 4)

In the fourth part of My Journey through Vietnam series, I’m going to take you to the Halong Bay. If you want to catch up on my Vietnam travels so far — from the streets of Saigon to the waters of the Mekong Delta — you can have a look.
After our wonderful visit to the Mekong Delta, we drove from Hanoi to Halong Bay, where a dense cluster of about 3,000 limestone islands and islets rise spectacularly from the sea. The islands are topped with dense vegetation, and a few have huge caves with gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, one of which we visited later that day. Without a doubt, Halong Bay is among Vietnam’s most beloved and visited tourist attractions, and definitely deserving of its appointment a World Heritage Site.
En route to Halong to board our cruise, we stopped at a special embroidery and handicrafts factory and showroom. Aside from being the best restroom stop of the trip, it was a chance to purchase souvenirs made by young handicapped Vietnamese artisans. The embroidered wall hangings and table linens were particularly beautiful, and — like everything else in Vietnam — very inexpensive.
I bought a wall hanging was able to have my picture taken with the artist. He is deaf, and this job is one of the few, apart from rice farming, that he can do to earn money to support himself.
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We arrived at Halong Bay around midday, and settled into our cabins aboard the cruise ship Emeraude, then joined others in the ship’s dining room for lunch. I think I discovered my dream menu there in Vietnam. I couldn’t seem to get enough of pho, a light, delicious Vietnamese soup made with a lovely, delicate beef stock, rice noodles and aromatic herbs.
The lunch buffet also had spring rolls, which are artistically wrapped with bits of shrimp, sprouts, green onion, basil, and cilantro, along with several types of sauces for dipping. There are other choices as well, but who cares, when I can enjoy pho and spring rolls?
After lunch, we headed for the Hang Sung Sot Cave. This cave, whose name in English means Cave of Surprises, was named by a French explorer who was amazed by the size and beauty of the cave’s interior rooms. It is probably the most beautiful of all the caves found in this region of Vietnam, with amazing stalagmites and stalagtites.
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When you exit the cave, you find yourself high above Halong Bay, peering at a gorgeous panoramic view of the water, the mist, the limestone karsts, and the women paddling boats laden with all sorts of things for sale — from conical hats to Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies. It was truly an amazing site.
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We returned to the Emeraude full of awe at the cave’s spectacular interior chambers, and I was again left wondering how I could be in such a beautiful place with such a painfully inadequate camera. But the images of the cave and the incredible views of the Bay from high atop the water are very clear in my mind.
That afternoon, while I took a cooking class conducted by the Emeraude’s chef to teach the art of making a spring roll, others in our group took advantage of a kayaking adventure offered aboard the ship.
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Many of those aboard the Emeraude enjoyed the rest of the afternoon and evening in the experienced hands of a Vietnamese masseuse. People were lined up for a treatment (more like a treat), and the women were booked up right through dinner. It wasn’t until after dinner, when everyone assembled at the ship’s bar and took their seats for the movie, Indochine, that the woman giving massages left the boat, hopefully having earned lots of money in well deserved tips.
Finally, I settled into my seat for an evening of Indochine under the stars on Halong Bay. There was a gauzy fog draped haphazardly over the limestone karsts. But that didn’t obscure them or dim their beauty. As the movie progressed, the familiar karsts of Halong Bay appeared, as lovely and mysterious on the screen as they are in real life.
The next morning, we reluctantly disembarked and returned to Hanoi to continue our tour. We were already regretting the moment we’d have to leave Vietnam, and we still had some days to go. That, my friends, is the test of a truly wonderful destination. Not ever wanting the day of departure to arrive!