About Me

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Hello! Welcome to my online travel-food-life journal/virtual scrapbook. I am a poet, playwright, journalist, editor and basic jack-of-all-trades writer. I was born in El Salvador and raised in Minnesota. I have just returned home from a year and a half in South Africa.

28 July 2011

Ich bin ein Capetonian

Hey, so I was listening to Nina Simone belting out "Mississippi Goddam" and it reminded me that I hadn't done this post.

While walking along the other day I ran into this:

It is a remnant of the Berlin Wall.

The plaque below, reads in part:

"This is an original segment of the Berlin Wall, erected by the former East German Communist Regime ... to isolate the Western sectors of Berlin.  The Wall soon became a sad symbol ... of the suppression of freedom and violation of human rights.  588 people died trying to overcome The Wall.

This segment of the wall which has been given to Cape Town as a gift, has special significance as it is a monument of President Mandela's state visit to Germany and Berlin in May 1996."

That's what I love about Cape Town, just when you think you're just strolling down a lovely street, there's something to remind to really -- but really -- appreciate the loveliness around you.

27 July 2011



Hey ... I said I was going to do this post a long time ago and I never did!  Sorry!  But actually, given yesterday's post, I figured this would be good timing because these little guys are perfect for an IBS diet ...

So I was born in El Salvador, right?  And if you ask any Salvadoran, they will tell you that we have the most delicious tortillas in the world. 

They are corn, always corn, and are not those thin, flimsy things that (although delicious in authentic Mexican tacos) turn into rubbery little shells otherwise.

No, no.  Our tortillas are thick (like 1/2 inch usually), warm little rounds of heaven.  We so adore our tortillas that all efforts at mechanization in El Salvador have been roundly defeated, people noting (quite correctly I think) that the salts and oils on the hands of a tortillera give our tortillas that je ne sais quoi ...

And of course there aren't just tortillas, there are our famous Pupusas and Salvadoran tamales (totally different than the Mexican varieties), and so many other wonderous delights of my homeland ... and all of them require MASA.

"Masa" just means "dough."  But this is not just any kind of corn dough.  You cannot make it with cornmeal or corn flour or polenta.  Masa is made with "Nixtamal," the treated corn that is used to make masa and hominy. It is corn that has been cooked and treated with lime (calcium hydroxide). 

Why in the world would you do that you ask?  Well, for the answer we turn to our beloved Wikipedia:

"The ancient process of nixtamalization was first developed in Mesoamerica ... it was very important in the early Mesoamerican diet, as unprocessed maize is deficient in free niacin. A population depending on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment, and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases ... Maize also is deficient in essential amino acids ... Maize cooked with lime provided niacin in this diet. Beans, when consumed with the maize, provided the amino acids required to balance the diet for protein."

So that's the science behind it, but what it translates to, for us plebes, is just a butter-smooth, delicious, mild dough.  Again, NOTHING like cormeal or grits or polenta.  There is nothing crunchy about it, just soft and mellow.

But guess what my children?


In fact, there are no corn tortillas.  NONE.  All you'll find are flour tortillas -- which I don't really care about anyway -- for 10 DOLLARS A PACK.  That's a dollar a tortilla folks.  Again, I plead with any enterprising tortilla makers to run, fly, sail to South Africa immediately. 

So I'm in withdrawal!  Seriously bereft.

And unless I can get my hands on a sack of seed corn, some lime and a metate, I had to come up with an alternative.

Which is where this comes into play:

This is mielie-meal, finelly milled cornmeal, a staple food here in South Africa, used to make something called "Pap" -- very similar to polenta or grits from what I understand.

I found this at the store and thought, well, let's give it a go ... so I tried to use it like I would use Masa Mix:

Immediately, as I felt the flour, I knew it was the wrong texture.  But I pressed on.  And this was the result:


Awful, dry, cracked things.  Horror! 

So then I remembered my lovely Venezuelan friends and their frequent ravings over their "Arepas" -- kind of their version of tortillas -- but made with regular, not Nixtamalized, corn flour.

I went online and researched and found out that Arepas are made by first pouring boiling water over the corn meal and letting it sit and soften.  I followed this method and look:

Much better no? 

They even look like Salvadoran tortillas -- nice and thick -- a bit crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.

It's not quite the same, of course, the texture and taste is not the same.  But they are yummy in their own right and make a nice substitute.  Then I followed another method I found on line and mixed the dough with grated cheese (these were made pre-IBS attacks):

Aren't they pretty? 

We even had a whole meal of arepas with a lovely, homemade tomato, yellow pepper sauce, avocado and feta cheese:

So, there you go, that's the tale of a SalvadoreƱa in Cape Town and her maize-induced woe and redemption.

Necessity is the mother of invention as they say.  And while my Arepas are keeping me sated ... they are the Methadone to my real smack of choice so if anyone wants to send me a bag of Masa Mix ...

26 July 2011

A Tale of a Food-Lovin' Gal & IBS

OR:  A Book for Which I Would Happily Do an Infomercial

So before I return to regular-life-in-Cape-Town posts, I wanted to go back and address the whole IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) thing ... because for a while there, I really didn't think I'd be able to join Aaron at the archaeological site at Mossel Bay.

When I started writing this blog, I talked about why food would be one of the things I focused on -- because cuisine is a wonderful way to learn about a culture, because it allows for experimentation and exploration, and because -- more than anything -- I love to cook.  I find it fun, very therapeutic, challenging.  I love to feed people and try new things and comfort and soothe people with old favorites.

But then, about 6 weeks into being here in South Africa I suffered a terrible series of painful abdominal attacks.

For that horrible week when it seemed that all my stomach would tolerate was dry toast, white rice and bananas, I was feeling quite distraught.  And of course it was when we were just about to go to Mossel Bay!

I was really at the end of my rope.  Nothing made sense.  I tried one thing after the other, nothing worked and each night I'd be hunched over in pain.  Thankfully, I am a total Hermione-Granger-type-book nerd, and when presented with a problem, I turn to the books (and the internet, of course.)

After reading through many things and assessing all my symptoms, it became clear that I definitely have IBS.  And it also became clear that although this attack was the most acute I had ever had, I have had this (or been close to it) for a long time.  As I mentioned before, I have had doctors rule out allergies, infections, lactose-intolerance, etc., for my recurrent stomach problems for years now.  And quite frankly, the doctors have been useless.  They shrugged their shoulders and told me to eat fiber and I think one told me once, "well maybe you have a touch of IBS" -- and then did nothing about it.

But research is a good thing my darlings, and pain is quite a strong motivator, because after my Cape Town attacks, I started reading up on it, and it really made so much sense.  Which didn't make me feel much better at first because most of the things I read were depressingly vague or hopeless.  For example, no one knows what causes it.  There is no test for it.  Some things seem to work for some people but not others.  The one thing they all agreed on was that there is no "cure."

There were tears my children, many tears.

But I kept at it, and I'm very glad I did, because I found this book:  Eating for IBS by Heather Van Vorous.  (I got it on my Kindle.)

Seriously, I can't say enough about this book.  It was written by a woman who suffered from IBS for many years and who through lots of painful trial and error and research has come up with the most comprehensive and helpful resource I've come across yet. 

Some of the book reflected things I had already begun to figure out (applesauce is much better for me than apples) and it also answered insanely detailed questions that had baffled me like, why are toast and avocado OK, but toast and scrambled eggs not?  (The answer, egg yolks can be a trigger -- who knew?)

I found her explanation of IBS really helpful.  She writes, "My favorite analogy is that having IBS is rather like having very sensitive skin, only the problem is internal.  You cannot visit a dermatologist to cure sensitive skin, because there is nothing physically wrong that can be fixed.  No surgery or drug can eliminate the problem .  It is simply a condition that must be controlled on a daily basis by avoiding those things that trigger the symptoms.  IBS requires the same type of precautions."

And she gave me lots of hope because she said that a change in diet could all but eliminate the symptoms.

She goes into detail about soluble vs. insoluble fiber and how important it is to understand their differences and functions when dealing with IBS.  And she talks about eating things in a certain order, and how that alone is a huge help and goes into a detailed list of the most common trigger foods (the worst being red meats [and all fat-heavy meats], dairy products and fat.)

She's very helpful on the psychological/emotional side of things too -- you can tell she has personally dealt with IBS because she often talks about the pain and fear associated with it -- fearful that the next thing you put in your mouth will cause you pain, fear of suffering an attack in public, etc., etc.  And she's very firm about YOU being firm with waiters, relatives, friends, etc. about your dietary restrictions -- social stigma, embarrassment, etc. be damned.  And she's absolutely right, your health is more important than eating Granny's pudding.

Oh, plus, over half the book are recipes.

I made this Cherry-Almond Cake from the book -- reallllly delicious, and even Mr. I-can-always-tell-when-it's-that-low-fat-crap loved it!  All the recipes so far are great!

So I started to follow the suggestions in the book and I immediately started to feel better.  (And within a week I was climbing around in caves in Mossel Bay.)

All in all what she recommends is a very sensible diet, a good balance of soluble and insoluble fiber, lean meats, low fat, smaller meals ... and she recommends trying small bits of trigger foods to determine your own personal tolerances.

It's been a little over a month now, and when I follow her suggestions, I'm fine.  And as she recommends, I have tried a few trigger foods and have discovered, for example, that I'm fine with all raw fruits and veggies (unfortunately not the case for some people with IBS) and am OK with a little wine (alcohol can be a big trigger, but I'm OK if I have it with food) and I can have small amounts of lean red meat.  What I seem to not be able to do AT ALL though is high fat foods (like french fries) or ... woe of woes ... dairy.  SIGH!!!!  The couple of times I've tried, OH have I paid for it!

But so far, I've been  able to stick to her recommendations easily.  The dairy is hard, I admit, but I'm telling you, right now, even the creamiest, most meltingly delicious bite of brie could not tempt me.  It is simply not worth the hours of feeling like someone is twisting your guts from the inside.  Perhaps down the road, I'll try dairy again and see how it goes.

Anyhoo, that's my saga with IBS.  I can't tell you how much happier I feel to have some answers and to find something that my body is really responding to.  I'm determined that IBS won't stop me enjoying my food, and I'll continue to document the journey here ...

25 July 2011

Road Trip!: Mossel Bay to Cape Town: Day 3

All right kids, that last post damn near killed me.

So for the last post of our 3-day Road-Trip-to-End-All-Road- Trips, I'm gonna try and shut up and let the pictures do the talking.

We woke up to a perfect, beautiful morning ...


And went for an hour and a half horse back ride through a winery near Franschhoek.

I rode Wizard, a spunky little pony and Aaron rode a big stallion named Syrah (like the wine.)  Riding on English style saddles kinda sucks, but galloping?  Galloping is amazing!  Oh, and I might have dropped my camera and my sunglasses and Aaron might have had to fetch them and then haul himself back up on his horse while said horse tried to run away.  That might have happened.

I can't tell you how fun, fun, fun that ride was.  Wizard was feisty and kept wanting to run ... I wish I could ride horses every day ... or, well, maybe once a week (cuz I really couldn't sit right for a week after!)

Afterward we went to the nearby Solms-Delta winery and ate at their restaurant.  AMAZING.  They focus on using native fynbos foods.


Aaron had a dish of Portuguese sausage and calamari and I had this gorgeous, succulent Indian-spiced chicken:


  They also have a small museum dedicated to the archaeology of  the area, which is very cool:

Then, less than an hour's drive later we were in Cape Town, and in one of the nicest moments of the trip, I saw Table Mountain and thought, "ah, we're home!":

A few of our treasures from the trip:


All in all, the most, most, most amazing road trip ... words (I think you can tell) are failing me.  I'm just a very lucky girl!

22 July 2011

Road Trip!: Mossel Bay to Cape Town: Day 2

Strap yourselves in ... this is the world's longest blog post (and one the most amazing, beautiful, delicious days I can recall in a long, long time ...)

Yesterday I left off with Montagu.  I forgot to mention that we had dinner there in a lovely little pub, but it was so dark all the pictures turned out terrible.

So, the plan for our second day was no plan.  All we had in mind was to find some wineries and find somewhere nice to sleep for the night.

But first breakfast at our self-catered B&B.  We had picked up sourdough bread, rolls, avocados, butter and jam before we left Mossel Bay.  So we fueled up and I made Avocado Sandwiches for the road ...

We woke up to mist in Montagu's vineyards:


And look, they have their own little rock-boulder version of the Hollywood sign:

Then we went to the Montagu museum, which reminded me so forcibly of another tiny-town museum (this one in Springfield, Minnesota -- any Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there?) that I felt quite at home amid the weird animal carcasses, gramophones, old china, antique wedding dresses and freaky old medical implements.  I love these kind of places.  Also, they had a display about -- and sold -- traditional South African remedies.

 Excema?  Epilepsy?  There's a cure here for you.

I particularly loved this San necklace, made of fish vertabrae and seeds -- it looks EXACTLY like Salvadoran necklaces you can still buy to this day on the beach made by local kids ...

Then we said goodbye to Montagu and we were off for a day of wine tasting!  


Oh, and at this point I think it's important to say that Aaron and I are complete idiots when it comes to wine.  We have no idea about anything except what we like -- which for me tends to be crisp whites and for Aaron tends to be bold reds.

Our first stop was the Robertson Winery ... and EH ...


The wine was good (we bought a bottle) but it was HUGE, industrial feeling and the staff seemed totally distracted (despite the fact that it was the off-season.)  Though they did help us when we said we were interested in going to smaller wineries.  They gave us a map, circled a few recommendations and we were off again.

Now, when I say map ... well, let's just say that between the vague tourist map and South Africa's capricious signage habits ... we got lost ... very lost ... for like an hour.  And it was glorious!

We ended up on a bunch of dirt roads that invariably ended in signs like these:


This might be my favorite picture I've taken so far in South Africa, largely because it was taken as Aaron was taking off (way too fast, by the way) down a dirt road ... it's just such a perfect little moment ... and I'd love to hang out at this little house sipping wine all day long ...

Well, eventually, finally, we found what we were looking for:  Fraai Uitzicht:

A small winery, B&B and restaurant (though sadly it was closed for the off-season).  They only produce one wine, an unbelievable Merlot (and only 6,000 liters a year.)

We did the tasting, got some wine and then went walking around ... The whole time we were thinking, we have to come back here and stay!  Thatched roofs, amazing little bungalows, a pond, a swimming pool, sculptures, the views ... I'll shut up now so you can just enjoy how stunningly beautiful this place is:

After that we went down the road to the Kranskop winery:

Another beautiful place, a slightly larger operation with more selections, a couple of which we really liked and bought (we especially liked their Shiraz.)

We got a quick tour of their cellars and then the proprietor told us to go ahead and take a walk around the vineyards.

 She sent us off with these 2 as our guides:

I forget their names (they were in the indeciphrable-to-me vein of Afrikaans) but man were they cute.  Well, the little guy was cute.  The other dude was a frigging horse -- but so sweet!


Then off we went again ...

I love this picture -- taken from the car, and all the angles are wrong and it makes me dizzy and it makes me laugh!

 The drive was, again, beyond beautiful:

We decided to spend the night in Franschhoek, which means "French corner" in Afrikaans, and has been a French enclave since the time when Huguenot refugees came to South Africa looking for religious freedom.   For sure, this place was kinda chi-chi and foo-foo and more touristy than Montagu (hey, that rhymed!), but it really was gorgeous!


 Hilarious name for a store!

It's also known a gastronomic hot spot, and there were a ton of restaurants to choose from.  Aaron and I aren't really down with the uber fancy or the trendy or hipster type restaurants, so we ended up choosing Kalfi's -- and were completely blissed out.  They do typical South African food, and they don't mess with it (making it tall, or swirling a bunch of crap everywhere), they just make it really, really good!

As we waited for our food, we admired their decor:  fun, warm, but still with a bit of polish and unique touches.  I really dug their silver spiral staircase:

 Aaron started with the most delicious split pea and ham soup either one of us have ever tasted (even though I was only going to have a taste, I ended up having half of it.)  It had this mysterious background taste that neither of us could identify.  It was clear, sharp, but not acidic, not lemony ... so good!


Then he had a seafood curry and I had a homemade pasta with mushrooms, other veggies and local olives (they sold jars of the olives and I bought some they were so good.)


Sometime around 11, we staggered back to our little B&B and collapsed into bed ...