Don’t Read This If You’re Hungry

It dawned on me today at the beach that perhaps my bathing suit was a little more snug on the hips than when I stepped onto the plane that cold and wintry January morning.  That perhaps there was a little more excess hanging over the edges.  A little more pound to the round.  More inch to my pinch.  And I realized that there has been one topic that has been sorely neglected if not down right ignored.

Food.

There has been an incredible trail of scraps left in the wake of my 5-country tour.  A proverbial path of panko has wound its way through banana fields and sugar plantations, carpets of coffee-covered misty mountains and mango trees dropping fruit like Central American dogs drop puppies.

There are certain moments in my food history that are etched into memory.  Preserved in saliva and coated on my tongue like prehistoric amber:  my first fois gras explosion at my favorite restaurant in Montreal.  Corn on the cob and lobster cooked over an open fire on a bluff overlooking the breeching whales of the St. Lawrence river.  Teriaki pan-seared tuna served with wasabi mashed potatoes.  Some food you just don´t forget.

But never hath the juices of so many memorable meals passed over thine lips in such a concentrated time-line of Mmm´s and Aahhh´s.

Brazil almost doesn´t count because we had to eat vegetarian and I´m not sure that there are many local Brazilian dishes that don´t include the word “asada”.  No matter because Brazil had acai and I could have happily eaten that for three square meals plus dessert.  Acai is this new fad super-food that is being talked about the way that sushi and smoothies were debated over the fodue pot in the seventies.  A massive antioxidant.  A tart little berry so full of blue-ey goodness that even Violet Beauregarde would be jealous.  The Brazilians add sugar and turn this into a slushy, purple sludge onto which you pile bananas, mangoes, granola, nuts, tapioca, honey and whatever else happens to be lined up at the buffet.  You pay by weight and I should not like to think of the pounds I paid for this.  On both my hips and in my pocketbook.  There should be a warning label.  A Surgeon´s General advertisement.  Acai is addictive.  And not in the way that Red Bull is craved by the sleep-deprived masses.  We´re talking Hastings Street on Welfare Wednesday.  This smack is THAT good!

Make a run for the border and suddenly I am sitting at the bar of my first taco stand in Guatemala.  Yeah, that´s right.  It had a bar.  A civilized way to eat street-meat.  Watch your food being prepared.  Eat.  Enjoy.  Pay after.

A cone shaped piece of metal.  An inverted wok, if you will, stood smoking and proud like the volcanoes in the distance.  Surrounded and protected by a moat of bubbling juices; on a lake of spicy red tomato broth floated globules of grease and oil, its´smoldering, watery depths would render any ol´tortilla into perfect, pliable submission with only one dunk.  Tender pieces of pre-braised pork was fork-shaved off the roast and thrown onto a sizzling dance floor with the likes of frenzied onions and whirling peppers in a tango so seductive you almost had to look away.  It was topped off with a flourish of pico de gallo and hot sauce and before you could say “Yo quiero Taco Bell” you were licking the greasy goodness off the backs of your wrists.

Pupusas were the national delight of El Salvador, and though I didn´t find a letter written home tucked in amongst the corn flour and the cheese, they were quite tasty.  I have discovered that, according to my palate, you just can´t go wrong with Masa flour, beans, cheese and salsa, no matter which way it is assembled.

The making of pupusas I found quite fascinating:  a small ball of corn flour dough is rolled and then, like sticking your finger in the belly of that ticklish fellow from Pilsbury, you create a well in the center that is filled with beans, cheese or meat.  Fold in the corners of the dough and give your pupusa a round of applause.  That is, slap it and turn it until it resembles a patty.  It was this slap-happy process that enamored me to the pupusa.  Walk down the street during a busy lunchtime in El Salvador and it sounds like a golf-tournament response to a Tiger Woods fairway drive post prostitute scandal.

We had a kitchen in El Salvador and some the best meals were the ones home cooked family style.  We created a group that would eventually become our crew for quite a few weeks of travel.  With frequent trips to the fish market in La Libertad, we made paella with fish, calamari, giant shrimps and rock lobster.  A seafood smorgasborg that was epic simply because we made it together.

However, the primary suspect for my burgeoning, blossoming bottom is most likely the baleadas from Honduras.  Yep, you guessed it:  flour, beans and cheese, although white flour this time so not as dense and heavy as its corn-flavored brother.

Now ever since I was a kid, my favorite snack (and I know this is kinda gross) was a flour tortilla spread with butter, zapped in the microwave for 15 seconds, rolled up and eaten.  I LOVE flour tortillas.

So it’s no wonder that I was ordering up these cheap eats pretty much every day in Utila.  A handmade flour tortilla is spread with beans and queso, folded in half and fried on a cast-iron skillet.  Mmmm.  Such starchy, hip-widening deliciousness.  And just to balance out my food triangle, I would order up a fruit licuado (smoothie made with milk) to wash it all down.

And then there is the fruit.  Oh, thank goodness for the tropics.  Mangoes, cold sandia, jocotes–sweet and tart little fruits that I devour by the bag full on all bus rides, papaya that would dwarf even the nog of a Conehead, bananas, avacadoes, nispero; a soft fruit that tastes like pears soaked in brown sugar, like Halloween and autumn winds.  Guava, plantains, passion fruit and melon, water apples, yucca and prickly pears.   How will I ever relish another Granny Smith after eating all of this sweet, delicious fruit?

Now it goes without saying that usually the best meals are the ones that take time.  Food you have to work for.  Just think back to any meal you´ve made camping.  Even a can of Pork n´Beans can taste like cassoulet.  Or with the cracking and splattering that goes into the salty finger-licking goodness in eating lobster, you just feel like you EARNED its buttery richness.  So it is no surprise that perhaps the best meal so far was created on the tiny beach of Jiquillio.

After a morning surf we watched a boat ride in off the horizon, coast in on the crest of a wave and gun itself up onto the sand.  It was from these fishermen returning from a night out at sea that we purchased two whole tunas and a small snapper for the equivalent of TWO dollars.  Two dollars.  You couldn´t LICK a can of tuna for two dollars in Montreal.

There was our group of seven plus two we had invited over from a nearby hostel and everyone pitched in.  The boys cleaned the fish.  I made a teriaki marinade.  The prep table was a flurry of knives chopping, shredding, mashing and dicing.  We made potatoes with vegetables, garlic and onions wrapped in tin foil.  The fish was stuffed with potatoes and carrots, garlic and the teriaki sauce and also wrapped in foil.  Everything was cooked on a sand-pit fire by the sea, over coals of coconut husks, hot stones and driftwood.  And we waited, with beers in our hands, rum in our glasses under a starry sky.  The steaming packets of foil we opened on the table.  We ate with our hands, picking the iron-red meat off the bones with our fingers.  It tore off in long, meaty strips.  Why tuna is called the “Chicken of the Sea” I will never know because surely this must be Neptune´s filet mignon.  The bones were picked clean.  For dessert we wrapped plantains and bananas in foil with sugar and tossed the packets into the fire.  And as we digested in hammocks, I felt I could have died right then and there and not felt like I had missed out on anything life has to offer.  The kind of meal that even the burp tastes good afterwards.

And I’m still eating.  Working my way through Nicaragua, where the tacos are rolled tight and fried crispy. Hoping to stumble upon a new culinary adventure in every market or on each bus ride.  And lucky for me that I am to be a yoga instructor, because it seems that this chiquita is going home with a rotund Spanish bum stuffed into a Brazilian bikini.

Buen provecho.

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