Ask a Rough Guides author

Twitter chat #RGtalk with Max Grinnell, @theurbanologist

4 to 4:30 p.m. EST

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wondering what to do this winter? Head to the Windy City and the Great Lakes region for world-class architecture, compelling cuisine, great museums, and more!

Join our Twitter chat #RGtalk! One lucky participant will win a set of guidebooks: The Rough Guide Snapshot to the Great Lakes eBook guide and The Rough Guide to the USA.

Use #RGtalk to join in–and use the hashtag to tweet your questions about the Chicago area in advance, too!

Whether you are planning a high-energy sightseeing tour of Chicago, a night of fine dining, or a weekend getaway beyond the city limits, Rough Guides writer Max Grinnell can help. He’s got the inside scoop on where to go, what to do, and how to plan the Chicago-area vacation that is right for you.

Connect with fellow travelers and chime in with your own answers and advice. Retweet a recommendation or idea you think others will like. Just remember to always include #RGtalk so that your comment or question is included in the thread.

What is a Twitter chat, you ask? A Twitter chat is a group conversation on Twitter held at a designated time, about a designated topic, and threaded together by a common hashtag.

About author Max Grinnell

Max Grinnell has been wandering around Chicago since his first trip to the Windy City in 1983 at age 8. He saw Mr. T march in the Thanksgiving Day parade during that visit and was immediately sold on the city’s charms. Since then he has written about the city for the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and the Guardian, and appeared on numerous radio and television programs to talk about the city’s architecture, history, art, and culture. Over the past fifteen years he’s found time to explore Door County, wander through Indiana’s Amish Country, and also make several pilgrimages to the Motor City.

Max is the author of the Great Lakes region for The Rough Guide to the USA. You can follow his travel adventures on Twitter @theurbanologist and on his website,theurbanologist.com.

Plan your trip with The Rough Guide Snapshot to the Great Lakes eBook guide, and join our Twitter chat for a chance to win!

  

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Ko Samui is perhaps an unlikely spot to learn the art of Thai cooking. Given the choice between lapping up rays on a patch of sand, palms and waterfalls in the Gulf of Thailand or arming yourself with a sharp cleaver to take on a mound of raw pork and fiery chilies, most people will surely opt for the former – especially when the best plate of food you’re likely to have in your life costs about a buck at the local market.

Yet the packed schedule at the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts suggests otherwise. The school focuses on central Thai food, considered the classic style among the country’s four regional cuisines, with its coconut-milk curries and flavoursome balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

The classes begin with a discussion of the ingredients (and how to substitute for those hard to find outside Southeast Asia), work up to wok skills and end with a feast of your own making, an array of tempting and delicious stir fries, curries and soups.

Walk into the school’s unassuming shophouse just off Samui’s Chaweng Beach and you may wonder whether you’ve been shanghaied into a tropical Iron Chef gone awry. A sea of tiny bowls bursting with cumin seeds, tamarind, coriander root, galangal and shrimp paste lie scattered across the prep tables, and you’ve got a little more than two hours to whip up three dishes. But before panic sets in, the lead chef calmly explains how to chiffonade a kaffir lime leaf, and soon enough, you’re grinding out a proper chili paste in a mortar and pestle with the steady hand of a market lady who’s been at it for fifty years.

It can’t be this easy, can it? You chop a few more chilies, toss in an extra dash of fish sauce, swirl the wok and – aroy mak – you’ve just duplicated that tom yum kai (spicy shrimp soup) you saw at the market. So what if it cost a few dollars more?

Classes are held twice daily at SITCA, on Soi Colibri.

 

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In the days leading up to Thailand’s annual Loy Krathong Festival of Light, pretty little baskets fashioned from banana leaves and filled with orchids and marigolds begin to appear at market stalls across the country. On festival night everyone gathers at the nearest body of water – beside the riverbank or neighbourhood canal, on the seashore, even at the village fishpond. Crouching down beside the water, you light the candle and incense sticks poking out of your floral basket, say a prayer of thanks to the water goddess, in whose honour this festival is held, and set your offering afloat. As the bobbing lights of hundreds of miniature basket-boats drift away on the breeze, taking with them any bad luck accrued over the past year, the Loy Krathong song rings out over the sound system, contestants for the Miss Loy Krathong beauty pageant take to the stage and Chang beer begins to flow.

One of the best places to experience Loy Krathong is in Sukhothai, the first Thai capital, 400km north of Bangkok, where the ruins of the ancient capital are lit up by fireworks.

 

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Offhand, how many different ways can you think of to prepare herring or salmon? The two fish are staples of the smörgåsbord and, at last count, there were well over 120 varieties being used in restaurants and kitchens across Sweden.

The Swedish smörgåsbord (literally “buttered table”) is a massive all-you-can-eat buffet where you can sample almost anything under the midnight sun, from heaving plates of fish and seafood – pickled, curried, fried or cured – to a dizzying assortment of eggs, breads, cheeses, salads, pâtés, terrines and cold cuts, and even delicacies such as smoked reindeer and caviar.

You’re best off arriving early and on an empty stomach. Just don’t pile everything high onto your plate at once – remember that the tradition is as much celebratory social ritual as it is one of consumption. That means cleansing your palate first with a shot of ice-cold aquavit (caraway-flavoured schnapps), then drinking beer throughout – which as it happens goes especially well with herring, no matter the preparation.

Plan to attack your food in three separate stages – cold fish, cold meats and warm dishes – as it’s generally not kosher to mix fish and meat dishes on the same plate. Layer some slices of herring onto a bit of rye bread, and side it with a boiled potato, before moving on to smoked or roasted salmon, jellied eel or roe. Follow this with any number of cold meats such as liver pâté, cured ham and oven-baked chicken. Then try a hot item or two – Swedish meatballs, wild mushroom soup, perhaps Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s temptation”), a rich casserole of crispy matchstick potatoes, anchovies and onion baked in a sweet cream. Wind down with a plate of cheese, crackers and crisp Wasa bread and, if you can still move, fruit salad, pastries or berry-filled pies for dessert, capped by a cup of piping hot coffee. Then feel free to pass out.

Try Ulriksdals Wärdshus, Slottspark (www.ulriksdalswardshus.se), 10min north of Stockholm in Solna.

 

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Away from the casinos of Macau – the only place in China where they have been legalised – there lies an old Portuguese city steeped in colonial history and packed with impressive sights and restaurants. Rough Guides writer Helen Ochyra set out to find the best things to do in Macau beyond the betting tables.

“Where East meets West” is a cliché as overused as those other travel writing horrors “city of contrasts” and “melting pot”. And yet, for some places it is simply true.

One of those places is Macau, a city where Portuguese colonial history sits inside modern China. Macau was a Portuguese colony for several centuries until 1999, and as a result this very Asian city retains a wonderfully European flavour.

This cocktail of cultures is expressed nowhere better than in the food. Macanese cuisine combines the city’s Portuguese and Chinese influences, but adds a dash of African or South American spice picked up from its days at the centre of numerous trade routes.

I sample this unique culinary mix at Restaurant Litoral, started by Manuela Ferreira with the aim of bringing traditional Macanese food, as cooked in the home, to the public. Her signature dish is galinha à Africana (African chicken), barbecued chicken smothered in red spicy sauce. Although garlic, chilli, paprika and coconut are staple ingredients in this Macanese favourite, every restaurant makes it differently and Manuela makes hers with peanut in the sauce – this makes it thicker and tastier than you’ll find elsewhere. I tuck in to mine with gusto and find myself hoping this full-on flavour-punch of a dish is served anywhere back home in London.

Traditional Portuguese cuisine is also popular in Macau and many of the city’s best restaurants specialise in this. One of these is Antonio’s, run by chef Antonio Coelho. My meal begins with an array of starters – clams in white wine, prawns in garlic, chorizo in brandy – all of which I scoop up hungrily and devour with a smile on my face. Then, the main event; a rich cataplana packed with scallops, prawns, octopus and chorizo, served in a steaming copper pot that is unveiled with suitable reverence at the table. It is designed to be shared and so I tuck in politely with my companions. Washed down with a Portuguese Quinta da Aveleda, it is delicious.

More Portuguese classics are served at O Manel, where we are welcomed with luscious slices of pata negra (cured ham), aged for 36 months and imported directly from Portugal. I could eat solely this, folded on top of the homemade bread, but the chalkboard menu cries out to us and so I order more clams, more prawns and a seabass from the nearby fish market, cooked on a charcoal grill. Owner and chef Manel visits the market twice daily to get the very best fresh fish and the benefits are clear – this is one succulent seabass.

Portuguese food may be popular in Macau, but I am in China and can avoid its intoxicating pull no longer; it is time to indulge in some Cantonese. For this I head to Coloane, where Kwun Hoi Heen serves upmarket dim sum. This is a real test for my chopstick skills, as I pierce crystal dumplings, scoop up dao miu (peasprouts) and attempt to wind stir-fried crispy noodles with Wagyu beef around them. This is dining at its most varied and I stay for hours, soaking up the sea views and trying to fit in just one more prawn dumpling.

Suitably sated I stroll around Coloane. This historic fishing village has always been less populated than the main city and today it remains a quiet retreat, the parks lined with walking trails and cobbled squares surrounded by pastel-coloured churches.

From Coloane Town Square we walk along the waterfront to one of Macau’s most well-known foodie names – Lord Stow’s Bakery. This small café is credited with bringing Portugal’s most famous tart, the pasteis de nata (egg custard tart), to Macau. It is the perfect mid-afternoon snack, the creamy sweetness providing the necessary sugar rush to carry on exploring.

And there is still so much to see. We head to Macau’s historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, which is ripe for strolling. We start at Senado Square, its cobbles arranged in black and white waves, and its colonial buildings standing grand with their-neo-classical arches and creamy yellow and white façades. From here we walk past the Baroque São Domingo church, the nineteenth-century Dom Pedro Theatre and up to Guia Lighthouse, China’s oldest.

But the highlight is the atmospheric façade of the seventeenth-century Portuguese cathedral dedicated to St Paul. Today the ruin of St Paul is Macau’s most photographed site and you can spend ages staring up at its intricately carved stonework.

Our final stop of the day is the Macau Tower, a 338-metre spindle that was finished in 2001. This is the best place to get a view of the city and looking out over it all I see Chinese temples standing side-by-side with colonial churches, Portuguese ruins next to ultra-modern casinos. “Where East meets West”? Check. A “city of contrasts” and “a melting pot”? Absolutely yes.

Explore more of China with the Rough Guide to China. Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. For more information on Macau visit www.macautourism.gov.mo.

The Rough Guide to 2014 is out! Find the top countries, cities, and best-value destinations to visit in 2014 here.

If, along with rest and relaxation, your idea of the perfect holiday hideaway involves cooking up your own meals with fresh ingredients, then a self-catering stay at Samakanda Guesthouse might be just what you’re looking for.

Tucked away in the hills above the town of Galle, Samakanda comprises two comfortable, solar-powered cottages: one a restored planter’s hut, the other a small bungalow overlooking lush terraced fields. As well as being an idyllic spot to cook your own food, it’s a great place to pick it – guests are welcome to take what they need from the organic spice, herb and vegetable gardens that enclose each property, from fresh salad greens to delicious fruits such as papayas, coconuts, passion fruits and bananas. The estate even grows its own rare strain of red rice, while local markets can supply fresh fish.

Should you fancy a night off from cooking, call on gourmet chef, Rory, the owner and founder of Samakanda, to show you how the stone pizza-oven works, or help you prepare some of his own favourites. With all the meals you and he can rustle up, you’ll also need a way to work it off; walk some of the trails laid out through the surrounding fields and forests, amble down to the river to cool off, or for the more energetic, try an exhilarating 40km cycle ride down through the jungle to the beach…and back.

For directions, accommodation details, rates and reservations visit www.samakanda.org

 

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On the last Wednesday of every August, 130,000 kilos of over-ripe tomatoes are hurled around the alleyways of Buñol until the tiny town’s streets are ankle deep in squelching fruit. What started in the 1940s as an impromptu food fight between friends has turned into one of the most bizarre and downright infantile fiestas on earth, a world-famous summer spectacular in which thirty thousand or so finger-twitching participants try to dispose of the entire EU tomato mountain by way of a massive hour-long food fight.

Locals, young and old, spend the morning attaching protective plastic sheeting to their house fronts, draping them over the balconies and bolting closed the shutters. By midday, the town’s plaza and surrounding streets are brimming to the edges with a mass of overheated humans, and the chant of “To-ma-te, To-ma-te” begins to ring out across the town.

As the church clock chimes noon, dozens of trucks rumble into the plaza, disgorging their messy ammunition onto the dusty streets. And then all hell breaks. There are no allies, no protection, nowhere to hide; everyone – man or woman, young or old – is out for themselves. The first five minutes is tough going: the tomatoes are surprisingly hard and they actually hurt until they have been thrown a few times. Some are fired head-on at point-blank range, others sneakily aimed from behind, and the skilled lobber might get one to splat straight onto the top of your head. After what seems like an eternity, the battle dies down as the tomatoes disintegrate into an unthrowable mush. The combatants slump exhausted into a dazed ecstasy, grinning inanely at one another and basking in the glory of the battle. But the armistice is short-lived as another truck rumbles into the square to deposit its load. Battle commences once more, until the next load of ammunition is exhausted. Six trucks come and go before the final ceasefire. All in all, it only lasts about an hour, but it’s probably the most stupidly childish hour you’ll ever enjoy as an adult.

See www.latomatina.com for info on Tomatina tours and plenty of photos and videos of the event.

 

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It happens to most newcomers: noses flare, eyes widen and pulses quicken upon entering La Boqueria, Barcelona’s cathedral to comida fresca (fresh food). Pass through the handsome Modernista cast-iron gateway and you’re rapidly sucked in by the raw, noisy energy of the cavernous hall, the air dense with the salty tang of the sea and freshly spilled blood. As they say in these parts, if you can’t find it in La Boqueria, you can’t find it anywhere: pyramids of downy peaches face whole cow heads – their eyes rolled back – and hairy curls of rabo de toro (bulls’ tails). Pale-pink piglets are strung up by their hind legs, snouts pointing south, while dorada (sea bream) twitch on beds of ice next to a tangle of black eels.

The Mercat de Sant Josep, as it’s officially called, was built in 1836 on the site of a former convent, though records show that there had been a market here since the thirteenth century. Its devotees are as diverse as the offerings: bargain-hunting grandmas rooting through dusty bins; gran cocineros (master chefs) from around Europe palming eggplants and holding persimmons up to the light; and droves of wide-eyed visitors weaving through the hubbub. At its core, though, La Boqueria is a family affair. Ask for directions and you might be told to turn right at Pili’s place, then left at the Oliveros brothers. More than half of the stalls – and attendant professions – have been passed down through generations for over a century.

When it comes time to eat, do it here. The small bar-restaurants tucked away in La Boqueria may be low on frills, but they serve some of the finest market-fresh Catalan fare in the city. Flames lick over the dozens of orders crammed onto the tiny grill at Pinotxo, a bustling bar that has been around since 1940. Pull up a stool, and choose from the day’s specials that are rattled off by various members of the extended family, like the affable, seventy-something Juanito. Tuck into bubbling samfaina, a Catalan ratatouille, or try cap i pota, stewed head and hoof of pig. As the afternoon meal winds down, Juanito walks the bar, topping up glasses from a jug of red wine. There’s a toast – “Salud!” – and then everyone takes long, warming swallows, as all around the shuttered market sighs to a close.

La Boqueria has a website – www.boqueria.info – and is open Monday–Saturday 8am–8.30pm.

 

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First, tea is served. In a fancy teapot, with biscuits, by a butler dressed in pristine white uniform. You gaze lazily out of the window as porters labour in the crushing afternoon humidity, blissfully cool in your air-conditioned cabin. Then the train eases out of the station: the skyscrapers of Singapore soon fall away, and you’re across the Straits of Johor and into the lush, torpid palm plantations of Malaysia.

This is the Eastern & Oriental Express, the luxurious train service that runs between Singapore and Bangkok, the last remnant of opulent colonial travel in Southeast Asia – evoking the days of posh British administrators, gin-sloshed planters and rich, glamorous dowagers rather like the set of a Merchant Ivory movie.

To be fair, you’re more likely to meet professionals from San Francisco or Hong Kong on the train today. There are a couple of stops to break the three-day journey – a rapid but absorbing trishaw ride through old Penang, and an evocative visit to the bridge over the River Kwai – but it’s the train itself that is the real highlight of the trip.

If you feel the need to stretch your legs, the observation car offers a 360-degree panorama of the jungle-covered terrain, and there’s a shop selling gifts to prove you’ve been. Then there’s the elegant dining car. Eating on the train is a real treat, superb haute cuisine and Asian meals prepared by world-class chefs. Many choose to wear evening dress to round off the fantasy and after dinner retire to the bar car, where cocktails and entertainment await, from mellow piano music to formal Thai dance. A word of warning: after all this, reality hurts. Standing on the chaotic platform of Bangkok’s Hualampong station, you might long to get back on board.

Singapore to Bangkok costs around US$2000 one way – see www.orient-express.com.

 

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With its stunning natural scenery, ancient towns and compelling history, Georgia really does have it all – and the food is no exception. Georgians are passionate about wine and love their sweets; eating here is more of a ritual than a meal. Rough Guides writer Kiki Deere talks us through an indulgent Georgian feast.

As I sip on Stalin’s favourite wine, I try to decipher the intricate squiggles on the bottle’s label. I don’t get very far – the Georgian alphabet seems better placed in the Lord of the Rings. It’s a mild spring evening in Tbilisi, and the streets hum with the chatter of locals unwinding over a meal after a busy week’s work. Small wooden tables spill out onto the pavements, accompanied by the clink of glasses and the rattle of cutlery. The sound of the Kura River, which flows through the city, is discernible in the near distance.

Food and wine play a vital role in Georgia’s culture and national identity – it was here that wine production was born 8000 years ago. I soon learn the unique alphabet I am unsuccessfully trying to decipher is modelled on the shape of vine tendrils: a clear indicator of wine’s significance in the country’s heritage. To this day, winemakers conform to the ancient wine-producing traditions that have been followed uninterrupted for the last eight millennia. Wines are fermented in clay jars lined with beeswax called qveri, which dramatically differ in size, from small earthen vessels to much larger egg-shaped ones. They are completely buried under the ground where the temperature remains constant throughout the year, thereby allowing the wines to ferment in a cool environment.

Of the 2000 or so grape varieties in the world, Georgia alone is home to over 500 indigenous varietals. The most well known is probably Saperavi, a deeply coloured red (it translates as “dye”) commonly used to make semi-sweet wines that are much sought after in Georgia and Russia. Rkatsiteli is Georgia’s most widely planted white grape variety, also grown over the border in neighbouring Moldova, Ukraine and Bulgaria.

Back in the restaurant where I’m seated, a friendly waitress with dark features places a large roundel of bread oozing with melted cheese in the middle of the table: khachapuri, Georgia’s favourite side dish and the accompaniment to most meals. The filling contains fresh or aged cheese, normally sulguni, a local pickled cheese that’s also enjoyed in neighbouring countries and Eastern Europe.

Next comes a refreshing plate of cold lobio, red kidney beans cooked and crushed with onions, vinegar, coriander, walnuts and chilli pepper, then left to marinate overnight. A smaller dish is placed next to them; pkhali, a wonderful vegetarian starter of small spinach and walnut balls. A selection of cheeses is also laid out on a rustic wooden board, adorned with a handful of fresh herbs and half-moon shaped tomato slices.

A procession of dishes continues to arrive at our table. Next comes satsivi, cold turkey in a creamy walnut sauce. Georgian cuisine is inconceivable without walnuts – not only are they extremely rich in nutrients, but their milk-like texture replaces dairy, which is found, for the most part, exclusively in cheeses. Walnut sauces are very popular in the Caucasus and are served with a variety of dishes, including badrijani, which consists of aubergines wrapped around a walnut paste.

Soon the aroma of sizzling meats fills the air. Mtsvadi, succulent cubes of skewered pork traditionally cooked over the embers of a bundle of dried grapevines, are served with onions and adorned with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Lastly, a plate of steaming khinkali is set down. These are dumplings filled with spiced meat – a mixture of beef and pork or lamb with herbs and onions. There is an art to eating them: the doughy handle at the top is never consumed, but used to hold the dumplings, which are bursting with rich meat juices that begin trickle out with the first bite.

Of course, another bottle of red wine is promptly ordered to accompany the tender meats, as my culinary ritual extends into the late hours.

When my belly feels overly content and unable to meet any other food, I am confronted with a large plate of candied treats – Georgia is a real sweet tooth’s delight. There is churchkhela, made from long strings of almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts dipped into thickened grape juice and left to dry, along with kada, a flaky traditional pastry filled with butter and sugar. Finally, I try the much sought after pakhlava, popular in central and southwest Asia, a light and sweet layered pastry with walnuts and honey.

Fully satisfied after this most sacred of Georgian rituals, I saunter back to my hotel with a bulging midriff. As I make my way through the series of maze-like alleyways, the air is still infused with the aromas of this country’s exquisite cuisine.

All photos provided by Khachapuri Café.

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