What I Learned From my Travels in 2015

Each year-end I take some time to reflect back at what all I accomplished, where all I traveled to, and most importantly, what I learned from those travels. I sincerely believe that travel is the best educator. Through experiences, you not only learn about other countries and cultures, but also about yourself. You acquire skills for communicating with strangers, adapting to changes, thinking on your feet, being the moment, and accepting what is happening.

Here are some of my travel highlights from 2015:

In January, I flew to Cancun and skipped the all-inclusive resorts that most vacationers flock to in Mexico. Instead, I drove around with my friends from the Mexico Tourism Board exploring the state of Yucatan. We ate the local cuisine, stayed at boutique hotels, swam in cenotes, and visited historic sites in the small charming towns of Valladolid, Merida and Izamal. What I learned was that this part of Mexico offers safety, luxury and small town charm, though its away from the sea. In fact, many Mexicans and Americans look forward to retiring in the Yucatan.izamal mexico

The same month, I also took a weekend break at Serenbe Farms, located only 30 mins south of Atlanta, GA airport. This residential community has been remodeled after the hamlets in UK and sustains its own food, power, education, art, etc. It was very interesting to spend a few hours hearing the story by its creator, Steve Nygren, and to learn that visionaries like him still exist today.

In February, I traveled to the Dutch-Carribean island of Bonaire, just before the carnival. This tiny island is packed with natural beauty, good food and friendly people. I noticed a great diversity of people here, most of whom discovered Bonaire during vacation and decided to settle. Within a few blocks of downtown Kralendijk, you can find restaurants that are run by immigrant Italians, French, Dutch, English, Africans, Indians, Indonesians, Jamaicans, and many more. Even though I was traveling alone for a week, I was always surrounded by interesting people, who were eager to include in their international circuit. Read my blogs from Bonaire. 

Bonaire carnival

In May, I visited Japan for the first time. I loved getting a bird-eyes view of Tokyo from my room at the Mandarin Oriental and enjoyed the wonderful fresh food around the city. But I also took an adventurous journey with Walk Japan Tours trekking for 10-days through the Kyushu mountains in the Kunisaki Peninsula. What I realized during this trip was I was completely unprepared to be climbing mountains for 10-12 miles a day! Some of the days were very scary as I was far behind my 3 fellow trekking, often sliding down slopes and not being able to call for help. However, I indulged in the authentic culture, staying at ryokans where no one spoke English, eating the freshest sushi ever, drinking saki every night, and bathing in communal baths (something beyond my comfort zone). I also saw a whole new side of Japan, that went beyond skyscrapers, shopping malls and bullet trains. Read my article on Japan in Khabar magazine. 

Kunisaki Japan

June took me to the farthest Caribbean island standing between US and Europe. Barbados has a rich culture influenced by the English and West Indies islands. You can see people playing the sport of cricket, eating fish fry, and singing reggae. There appears to be wide income disparity in this small country. Million dollar estates with private yachts can be found juxtaposition to shabby neighborhoods. Read Top 10 things to do in Barbados.

Bridgetown Barbados

In July, I took a group of journalists for our inaugural Go Eat Give trip to Mexico City. This was an eye opening experience since media largely portrays the city as being infested with crime, traffic and pollution. Most Americans who visit Mexico City go for business or family, not tourism. I learned that Mexico City was extremely rich in architecture, art, music and food, which has been influenced by wealthy Mexicans who travelled  to Europe during the 19th century. As a result, you can see neighborhoods with European architecture, Parisian cafes and gelato shops. It was clean and the traffic was far worse than what I have experienced in India. There were guards around, but I didn’t feel that I was going to get kidnapped or mugged. Also, I can never eat Tex-Mex anymore! Read Why Mexico City could be the next Paris.

I also led Go Eat Give’s culinary tour to Cuba in partnership with Cuisine Noir Magazine, who I have been writing for many years. Our all-women group experienced Cuban cooking, farming, food markets, rum tasting, mojito making, and much more. The highlight of this trip was having dinner at someone’s private home. The family was a friend of a friend and lived in a two-bedroom apartment that was falling apart. Yet they prepared an amazing meal for our entire group (perhaps the best food I ate in Cuba) with 10-12 dishes. We all sat outside in their tiny patio and ate with 3 generations of the family. I attempted to make some conversation with my broken Spanish, but mostly couldn’t stop admiring their generosity. Despite having so little (many food staples are rationed in Cuba), the people shared what they had. I also had some insightful conversations with Cubans about how they felt about easing relations with the US. Read about what has changed in Cuba. 

Go Eat Give Cuba

Until traveling on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas, I had ruled out cruising (unless it’s an adventure cruise) as a passive form of travel that did not interest me. But the Mediterranean Cruise this August journey took me on a once in a lifetime experiences across France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and UK. This new mega ship had large modern staterooms with balconies, live performances by artists flown in, 30 eateries, skydiving on board, and 18 floors of nonstop activities. The ship itself was a major attraction wherever we docked, but the tours offered during ports of call were pretty unique too. I visited the Rock of Gibraltar, hiked for the best croissant in Marseilles, took ferries around Cinque Terre, and explored the small towns outside Lisbon. I learned that given the right ship and itinerary, cruising can be fun for young active travelers too. Read my posts from my cruise. 

anthem of the seas

In September, I stopped in Sydney for an amazing weekend, where I learned that there is much more to Australian food than steaks, barbie and pies. The restaurant scene in Sydney, though growing steadily, can compare to those in London and New York. People here like to eat well, enjoy life and stay fit. The Sydney seafood market comes second to Tokyo in terms of volume traded. I had the most amazing seafood paired with local wines and even took a cooking class at the largest cooking school in the southern Hemisphere.

dining in Sydney

I led my second Go Eat Give trip to Bali in September.  Every time I go there, I realize there still exists a place in the world where no one frowns, gets angry or is stressed. There is a lot of poverty on the island, yet people are happy and content with what little they have. They pray every day, live among large families and help each other. I truly love the serenity in natural beautiful, the simplicity of living, and hospitality of the people of Bali. This year, we also offered an add on tour to Java, Indonesia, a predominantly muslim island, with a rich history of Hindu and Buddhist temples built from 9th century AD. I visited many sites I had only heard about in history books, such as Borobudur. I learned that my tour guide was a Hindu woman who had converted to Islam, but was also a practitioner of Buddhism. It said a lot about keeping harmony within religions and choosing a way of life that appealed to you as an individual. Read about sustainable tourism in Bali. 

Borabudur temple in Java

In October, I attend a Food and Wine tour of Israel with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. We went to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Acco, and Galile tasting up to 30 dishes a day. What I found out was that there is no such thing as Israeli food, but the food in Israel is some of the best in the world. With very high quality of produce traveling only short distances, and many cooking styles influenced by surrounding countries, the chefs in Israel have much in their favor. I had heard so much about the Old City of Jerusalem  and its holy history, but walking down the streets and experiencing it was something else. Despite what goes on in the area, I felt the people were praying for peace and wanted to spread love more than anything else. Read 8 of the Best Culinary Experiences in the Melting Post of Israel.

Western Wall in Israel

I crossed the border on foot from Elat to go across to Jordan, a place that was high on my bucket list. I felt like an explorer as I was one of the very few tourists roaming the vast open desserts of Wadi Rum and the lost city of Petra. After speaking to many locals, I found out how badly this part of the world has been impacted from the image of the Middle East. Though Jordan is a peaceful country, disruptions in surrounding countries has led to a severe decline in Jordan’s economy, where hotels, restaurants and tour companies have had to shut down. It was surprising that I was in the middle of some of the most beautiful attractions in the world, yet it appeared to be a ghost town.

Wadi Rum Jordan

What did you learn from your travels this year?

Modern Jewish Cuisine with Chef Avi Bitton

Chef, restauranteur and author, Avi Bitton visited Atlanta from Tel Aviv, Israel.  Bitton started working in the restaurant business at 14 years of age, and went on to open restaurants – Bucharest (Romanian inspired), Adora (named 10 best restaurants in Israel), Chill (chic bar on Tel Aviv’s famous Dizengoff Street), and Mercado (Kosher restaurant on the top floor of the highest building in Tel Aviv). Bitton is now one of Israel’s top celebrity chefs.  Bitton hosts two shows on Israel’s main TV networks called “A Maximum of 24” and “Global Kitchen.” He is also a frequent host on various programs on Israel’s Food Channel. Bitton is author of the books – My son and my Father Cook and Tell Chicken.                                                                                                                                                        

chef avi bitton
chef avi bitton

Here’s a Q&A with Chef Bitton courtesy of Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta.

#1. You started working in restaurants at the young age of 14. When did you know you wanted to be a chef and run restaurants?

AB: I think when I was maybe 5 or 6 when I cooked my first recipe at home. It was tuna salad from a children’s magazine.

#2. At 24 you opened your first restaurant. What were some of the major challenges you faced?

AB: There were a lot of challenges! First, when I agreed at 24, I was in shock. I was only a cook at the time and I had never organized a restaurant or managed a kitchen. It was a challenge to handle waiters, bartenders and manage salaries. When I started in my restaurant I thought I only had to buy ingredients, cook and serve. After one month I realized it’s like the army – everything needs to be perfect of you lose everything.

#3. Today you have several eateries. What’s the difference between your restaurants? Why did you choose to open a Kosher restaurant (Merkado)?

AB: I have one restaurant and two bars. Adora, my first restaurant, is a fusion between Israeli and Mediterranean. We serve seafood, but with Israeli serves small tapas that are both Mediterranean and Jewish. The Jewish food is a little trendy including foods like chopped liver and gravadlax. 

I opened a kosher restaurant because kosher is important. Our religion is 5000 years old and it’s important to respect our religion. In my other restaurants I mix milk and meat. For example, I make my roast beef with lots of butter. I want Israelis and tourists who keep kosher to have the ability to eat at one of my restaurants.

#4. Let’s talk about your food. Do you consider your food Israeli? How do you define Israeli food?

AB: I call it “New Israeli.” Actually, we don’t have an Israeli kitchen. It doesn’t exist. The Israeli kitchen is a unique blend of all cultures that came to Israel. There are recipes from Europe, Africa and all over the world. Only in Israel do you find Chinese chicken served in warm baguettes or fresh prawns that are typically European with tahini . When I was in New York three months ago I ate at 36 restaurants in three weeks! Everything was perfect, but I didn’t find any good fusion. 

Chef Bitton was scheduled to teach a modern Jewish cooking class at Hal’s Kitchen/ Go Eat Give. Here is one of the recipes he shared with us…

Veal Fillet Stuffed with Nuts Recipe

Ingredients:
Fillet weight of 1 kg
 
For the filling:
2 onions, chopped and fried in olive oil
1 cup chopped walnuts
salt & pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 Tablespoon of toasted sesame
 
Preparation:
Mix the ingredients for the filling. Make a hole in the center with a knife dropped all the way and put the mixture nuts. Season the roast with salt and pepper and roast in the heat of 250 C for about twenty minutes. Slice and serve.

~ Recipe courtesy of Chef Avi Bitton. To learn to make this recipe join the cooking class on February 25 hosted by Hal’s Kitchen and Go Eat Give in Atlanta. 

Jerusalem Bakery

I chanced upon this little tucked away place in Marietta on my way. There was a big sign saying “Jerusalem Bakery” so naturally, my curiosity arose. As I got closer, I saw there were two side by side establishments under the same banner. Making a detour, I walked into the bakery waiting to discover what it was all about.

Soon I was surrounded by rows of fresh breads, cookies, baklava and warbats. There was also a cooler with Safed cheese, soft drinks and some grocery items. As I walked closer to the counter, I noticed pies (or Israeli pizzas), pockets (calzones) fresh out of the oven, Harisah (semolina dessert soaked in honey) and a lot more.

Family owned and operated, the owner Tariq makes everything from scratch every single day. No wonder you can taste the freshness in the baked items. He also supplies pita bread to restaurants in Atlanta and the South East. Most of his business comes from the bakery, he says.

As I made my way next door, I realized there was a full fledged restaurant. A few tables in a very casual setting, Styrofoam plates and plastic forks is what you got. There is an open kitchen with self service counter where the aroma teases you.

I asked Tariq to serve me his specialties since I wasn’t well aware of Israeli cuisine. Apparently, I was wrong! When I saw this huge platter of hummus, babaganoush, tabbouleh salad, olives, falafal and pita, I felt on familiar territory. He also brought out a platter of chicken and beef shawarmas, rice and grilled chicken. The chicken was seasoned with a special spice blend that Tariq’s brother makes in Israel and is top secret! The shawarmas were well cooked, juicy and tender.  To me, none of these were new dishes but the flavors differed somewhat from that of Turkish, Lebanese, or Greek cuisines.

What I discovered today was that Israel has had influences of the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean making it a culinary melting pot. It’s cuisine, therefore happens to be very similar to that of the surrounding areas and you won’t be very surprised by a Jewish restaurant.

Tariq has tried to cater to the American as well as his Israeli clientele. He makes sandwiches and pizzas with a Jewish twist, and serves to regular patrons for weekdays lunches. He also offers platters of kebabs (chicken, beef, lamb), kufta, grilled meats and shawarma sandwiches. Vegetarian  can opt for the Jerusalem vegetarian sampler which is a combination of the appetizers. For his more traditional clients, he caters a whole lamb made to order (for about $350) which is quite popular at special occasions.

Alpharetta Location                        Marietta Location
770-777-0193                               770-419-1666
4150 Old Milton PKWY                   585 Franklin Road, Suite 160
Alpharetta, GA 30005                    Marietta, GA 30067

www.jerusalem-bakery.com