26 April 2010

Potato Pancakes, Pierogi, and Other Polish Pleasures

While Poland is probably known more for its recent tragic history than anything else, one thing that sustained war and strife is its rich culinary heritage. From delectable drinks to traditional fare, Poland’s food is sure to please.

Soups with bread for dipping is a must for Polish cuisine. Made from homemade and thick tomatoes or the lighter sweet and sour beet root, the cold weather necessities this starting course. Paired with the traditional Polish pilsners like Zywiec or Okocim, cold drinks complement the warm starters well. But for those looking for a bit of the “special” in their choice of beverage, try the hot chocolate. This Polish specialty is literally what the name implies: thick rich melted chocolate available in white, milk, or dark.

As for main courses, plate-size potato pancakes, softball-size pork knuckle, and Kielbasa served street-side are musts. And the late night cuisine of choice? Zapiekanka. This Polish style pizza served on baguette topped with cheese, ketchup, and choice of topping complements well an evening of beer drinking. But bring a friend when you order...you may need a bit of help eating it!
While potato pancakes, pork knuckle, and pizza are staples in Polish cuisine, the king of them all is pierogi. Arriving in quantities from 6 to 12, these Polish ravioli-type snacks come in all tastes and flavors. Fillings range from potato with cheese (Ruskie) to spinach to groats and liver (Kresowe) and are typically topped with onion infused oil and pork drippings if you’re lucky. Or for a bit of a gourmet twist on the traditional try pierogis stuffed with lentil, chicken, or chickpeas.

Polish cuisine is more than just a pleasant surprise, it's a truly pleasurable culinary experience.

22 April 2010

A Little Night Music

Since Warsaw seems to be the city of music, I found it apropos to attend a local concert one evening while here. As luck would have it, I happened upon the Frederic Chopin University of Music en route to the Chopin Museum (closed for renovations). The Music School's information desk attendant didn't speak English and I speak no Polish. So between hand signals, a couple of in-common words, and the universal language of numbers I was able to gather the following:
  1. There was in fact a concert to attend that evening (I think "concert" is a Polish cognate).
  2. It started at either 5 or 7 o'clock (she held up 5 fingers and then slowly brought up two others on her unoccupied hand...not sure what that meant).
  3. And it was free (rubbing two fingers on my thumb – the universal sign for "money" – cleared that up).
I wasn't quite sure what I was in for, but I was pretty certain it would be good. Gambling with the time, I opted for a 7pm start. But upon entering the university building, I immediately got the feeling I misread the situation entirely. There were as may children as there were adults, and the long lines at the candy machine seemed to indicate an intermission of sorts. Well shoot...I missed half the concert, but perhaps it was for the better. After all, it seemed to be a family recital night and I'd probably hear more squeaks and squeals than actually notes being played. If I hadn't been a former band geek I probably would have left. Boy I'm glad I didn't.

The first group to perform was a cello and two-violin trio. The oldest couldn't have been more than 10. As I thought back to my beginner bassoon lessons, I closed my eyes and braced myself for the blow. But "blow" they did not! They weren't just good; they could have beat out college trios I've heard perform. Not only was intonation and technique there, but the oldest violin player had clearly been coached in the performance-end of violin playing...acting out her music in movement.

And it just got better...a solo trumpet that missed only one note; a flute, clarinet, and piano trio that performed technique beyond their years; and five guitars playing classically (not strumming) in complete unison. Just when I thought the performances couldn't be topped, out walks a full sting orchestra followed by an 8-year-old. The young girl greeted the first chair violinist and cellist with handshakes then proceeded to not only play, but to lead the entire orchestra using her movements as cues.

At the end, the prodigy received an encore ovation, and floral
arrangements and bouquets were presented in honor of her grand performance. Apparently Warsaw not only eats, drinks, and breathes classical music, but even the kids play it damn well!

19 April 2010

A City of Music

Never have I visited a city where music is so much a part of the everyday. Both in concert and improvisational, you can’t wander too far in Warsaw without hearing piano concertos, violin solos, or melodious ensembles. Even Warsaw’s airport pays tribute to this fact, having been named for its famed composer Frederic Chopin.

Taking the Royal Walk along Krakowskie Przedmieście shoves you right into the musical world of Warsaw. Benches inscribed with tidbits about Chopin’s life play recorded piano music upon prompting. Chopin even left a tidbit of himself on the Royal Walk – his heart is in the left-side pillar of Holy Cross Church under the biblical inscription "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." At the end of the Royal Walk you’ll find the home of probably the most ornate (and ostentatious) organ you’ve ever seen. Dominating the choir coral at the back of St. Anne’s Cathedral is a gilded silver and gold organ (the picture, compliments of nzorgan.com, just does not do it justice). Visit St. Anne’s for Mass and you’ll be pleasantly rewarded with organ and solo tenor duets throughout the service.

The Royal Castle also celebrates the city’s love of the classical by frequently offering chamber music concerts within its royal walls.
The palace’s Great Assembly Hall instantly transports you to a time when composers were like gods, white wigs were the fashion, and the luxuries of the rich were celebrated without reserve. Concertgoers are seated in velvet cushioned chairs surrounded by gold trimmed mirrors and marble columns. Twenty gilt bronze scones strategically line the walls between mirrors and crystal chandeliers delicately light the chamber. With seating for just a small crowd, it shows the audience how chamber music gets its name. Despite the room's "large" name, listeners sit in close quarters with room for just a couple hundred. The acoustics of the room, assisted by its small size, delicately swirls the music of small ensembles above, around, and between listeners as it is isolated, blended, and resolved. Listening to chamber music in situ is an experience that truly can't be replicated.

But music isn't just isolated in concert halls and royal palaces. Just take a walk around the Old Town and you'll see what I mean. Out of a second story balcony, a woman hangs her laundry as recorded orchestra music floats out from French doors. Music students lay violin cases street-side while playing Vivaldi’s Spring in exchange for tips. And out of a basement window, bassoon and trumpet warm up chromatically while the strings of a violin whine as they are tuned.

For the many tourists and locals, music is what makes the town. But perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing:

16 April 2010

Walking the Walk in Warsaw

Walking is the only way to see Warsaw. With hundreds of must-sees within this bustling city, the majority of sites are walking distance from the main city center. And even for the tourist who is averse to walking, Warsaw makes it easy. The 2.5 mile Royal Walk in the heart of the tourist district lines itself with the more notable sights and beautifully reconstructed architecture. The Old Town Square just north of the walk immediately brings you back to an age of renaissance. With performing minstrels, colorful architecture, and a European propensity for outdoor-eating venues, it has been so accurately reconstructed that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.

From here Castle Square provides a Royal Entrance to the Roy
al Walk. The red-brick facade and clock tower of the Royal Castle dominate the square during the day and at night is eerily illuminated. Once the seat of Polish monarchs, it now sees thousands of visitors every day and serves as a venue for governmental meetings and concerts. But perhaps its most impressive characteristic isn't its imposing structure; rather, it is the two Rembrandts hung side-by-side within its walls.

Leaving the castle and continuing to walk down
Krakowskie Przedmieście, any Warsaw walker will immediately note the lack of cars....really, could Warsaw make this any easier? Not only are most sights within walking distance, but the street along which they reside is a cobblestone and brick pedestrian walkway.

While sights like St. Anne's Church, Hotel Bristol, University of Warsaw, and
Staszic Palace please the eye, even the Royal Castle is not what's most notable about this walk. What is truly amazing is that only 60 years ago, the Royal Walk and Old Town were completely destroyed. The impeccably reconstructed city, along with it a reconstructed Polish pride, is a testament to the Varsovian people...a people who have truly walked the walk.

12 April 2010

Wanderng About Warsaw

It didn't take long, did it. Less than 6 months back in the States and wanderlust got the best of me. Truth be told, I had a conference to attend. That's what brought me to Warsaw. But why not play tourist for a bit while I'm here, right?

I'm not sure what I expected to see upon arrival in Poland. Perhaps a bit run down, yet functional? Maybe a bit depressing, yet still potential for a good time? After all, the devastation seen by Warsaw and its people is only recent history. But the city has come back with avengeance. Despite being "razed to the ground" during Nazi occupation, almost a third of its population being killed, and decades of post-WWII communist leadership, Warsaw is worth your time to wander.

Diversity of architecture is an understatement to day the least. Old Town reconstructions and cobblestone streets pay tribute to the buildings that once were, and scattered among these are communist-era "quick-fix" buildings that still stand tall. Both stand side-by-side with modern shopping malls that could challenge (in both size and construction) those found in the States.

The city is impeccably clean. Rubbish lying street-side is practically non-existent, and the street cleaning crews (who obviously take their jobs very seriously) meticulously scrape gum residue from sidewalk surfaces as part of their jobs. Aside from the more obvious graffiti found on old and new buildings alike, Warsaw could claim rank with cities like Singapore for cleanliness.

Cobblestone streets add to the Old World atmosphere, but crossing them can be a game of chicken: it’s a challenge of wills between driver and pedestrian with the drivers winning out most of the time. But with a little boldness (and a lot of guts) you can safely travel by foot to almost all the attractions in Warsaw.

First stop for any visitor must be the towering Palace of Culture and Science. Built by the Russians during their Eastern bloc reign, it was meant as a gift to the people of Poland and is the tallest building in the country. Though the inside houses nothing of significance, the outside causes even the most unobservant to stop and pause.

But perhaps dominating more than this Russian-style "palace" is music. Part of Warsaw’s tradition, history, and passion (and something that couldn’t be destroyed by the Nazis), Varsovians embrace this art form with alacrity and you can't wander too far in Warsaw without being swept away by it yourself.

09 April 2010

The International Terminal

The lopsided, deliberate gait of an African woman catches my eye as I wait in line to check bags. Averting her eyes from the happenstance gaze of others, she slowly comes to a halt and patiently waits for her husband. He is wearing black leather shoes with cuffed pants that are a little too big. His two large canvas suitcases have the words “Port Harcourt” printed on paper and taped to the suitcases’ sides. As he lifts his leg to the baggage belt for footing I see he wears no socks. He stands like this for a moment, watches for the weight to register, and begins to shake his head.

An attendant beside this man signals for me. It is my turn to check in. I only have one bag for my 3-week trip and my load is light. I hand over my passport as I hear the soft yet full-timbred voice of the man in leather shoes and no socks. He tries to negotiate an extra 5 kilos for his canvas bag, filled no doubt with gifts and goods hard to come by in Nigeria. My passport is handed back to me and the African woman looks at nothing as I walk toward the security gate.

In front of me in the security line are two women, friends, both dressed in black. The woman closest to me wears tight plaits in her coarse hair which are pulled back halfway allowing for the plaits to hang low down her back. Her friend wears a high pony tail or bun, I can’t tell which, nor can I tell her hair color. The scarf she wears over her head is unnaturally pushed up in the back, like a bustle, concealing the details of the hair I cannot see. She caries a North Face backpack over one shoulder, but soon slips a silk-covered arm through the unoccupied strap. Her scarf is caught underneath. The woman with plaits touches the head scarf with perfunctory movement and pulls it from the tangle the backpack has caused.

We pass through security and I look for my gate. The waiting area is large and I choose from the more secluded seats behind a partial wall at the back. A final call for the flight before me is announce in Mandarin. I listen to the announcement, only understanding the Chinese numbers, then wait for the English translation. I watch people come down the escalator into the waiting area for my flight. I can tell which passengers are American and I see the Nigerian couple from Port Harcourt.

I am distracted from the escalator by movement behind a nearby pole. Another passenger, a man, has slipped into the same secluded area as me. Paying me no notice (or perhaps not noticing me) he begins to kneel, then falls prostrate. The direction the man faces seems skewed within the infrastructure of the surrounding room. I look away since there is no prayer room to offer him privacy.

My flight is announced in German, then English. Boarding pass in hand, I approach the attendant at the jetway. He thinks I’m German and exchanges the appropriate pleasantries then points me through the door. My trip has begun.

06 April 2010

Korea: The Skinny on Korean Cuisine

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
Much like Koreans have a rich culture and history, they also have a rich (and tasty) culinary tradition to please any foodie’s palette. Most of the meals (eaten in restaurants, anyway) involve a Hibachi table in some form or fashion.
Their most well known eating experience would be the Korean barbecue. You order different cuts of meat, cut them with scissors and grill them on the grill conveniently located in the middle of the table. The grilled meat pieces are then wrapped in lettuce, and any variety of onions, more lettuces, and sauces are added to taste.

The Korean cuisine also includes a lot of soups and stews, also cooked at the table. Shabu Shabu is more a feast than a meal and is eaten in phases. First a mildly spicy, tomato based broth with vegetables is heated and eaten at the table. Then small, usually thinly sliced pieces of meat are added to the remaining broth. Once all the meat is eaten, you add thick noodles. As if that wasn’t enough food, once the table is finished with the noodles the waitress comes over and takes out what remains, then cooks up some fried rice in the remaining, now reduced, brothy goodness.

We had other stews, or chigae, cooked at the table, containing delectable treats such as bulgogi (thinly sliced beef) and nakji (octopus). We ate these stews mostly when so little English/Korean was spoken by the respective parties that the waitresses just kind of took care of us. (Hats off to those ladies by the way – they were very hospitable and mighty excellent cooks.) Banchan, the various little dishes served before your food comes out, also accompanied every meal. The Banchan served differed from place to place but always included Korean’s beloved kimchi.

Should you find yourself in a Korean restaurant, other yummy dishes include pajeon (a savory pancake with anything from green onion and kimchi to seafood), dolsot bibimbap (my favorite, a rice dish served in a stone hotpot with a raw egg cracked over it that is cooked when you stir it all up), and any kind of mandu (dumpling) because let's face it...dumplings are awesome in any way, shape, form, or fashion.

Despite their distinctive cuisine, Korea has taken to some Western eats and they aren’t afraid to put their own spin on it. Not only does the McDonald’s serve up a Bulgogi Burger, but Korea has its own answer to fast food: Lotteria. Lotteria is eerily similar to McDonald’s, serving up burgers, soft drinks, and fries, and the décor is very McDonald-red. They also offer up options with a Korean flair including a Kimchi Burger, shrimp burger, and a spicy squid burger made of squid mixed with sweet potato.

While Korea seems generally proud holding on to many traditions, one tradition they seem to have pushed aside is tea. I expected to try (and bring home) all kinds of teas on my travels; however, the tea was expensive both by the cup and by the leaf. We are talking $6 a cup or $20 for about 30 teabags. There were a few teahouses but they (and their prices) seemed to be more geared towards tourists than tradition. Instead, coffee seems to be the Korean caffeinated beverage of choice.

02 April 2010

Korea: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
Korea has a gentle mix of new, old, and old world. Koreans are super techno freaks. Everybody, young and old, is glued to his or her cell phone (not unlike us text-happy Americans). Wi-fi is available almost everywhere, and apparently gaming addiction is a real issue, no doubt perpetuated by the very popular internet café type establishments called “PC bang.” Despite their progressive attitude towards technology, walking around Seoul is like stepping back into the 1950s.

The men all wear suits, the businessmen still participate in the 3 (or 7) martini lunches, the women dress to the nines and they smoke everywhere. Throw in a mild dose of Korean machismo and you almost feel like you’re in a different time period, at least until you see someone fidgeting with their cell, laptop, or other gadget of sorts.

Cut to Korea’s rich ancient history and the temples, gardens, and artifacts to go with it and you get an interesting juxtaposition. While one may yearn for a picturesque city full of pagoda houses and Buddhist temples, even in Gyeongju, a city of about 250,000 that was once the seat of the great Shilla empire, the temples and old burial mounds are set on a backdrop of tall buildings and neon.