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    My first thought when i heard that my sister in law was going to get married in Mexico was one of sheer delight, getting to eat Mexican food day in day out for 14 days without having to pay extra for guacamole pretty much swung it for me to book my flight! We were staying in the Yucatan region of Mexico, most notoriously famous for the city of Cancun (America of Mexico), the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean sea, and one of the 7 wonders of the world ‘Chichen Itza’. “Yucatan,” is a Yucatec Maya word meaning “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” – which pretty much summed up my street food exploration, when on several occasions i was caught (much to the hilarity of my other half) saying things in French, safe to say Spanish isn’t my forte!

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    By day 6 we had just about managed to work our way through the 3 a la carte and the 2 buffet (all you can eat) restaurants that our hotel had to offer. We wondered whether we could even find the taste of real Mexican food whilst staying in the heart of this popular Mexican tourist resort. Fortunately for us with some helpful local advice we were on the trail of a street stall park, populated by the locals in the backstreets of Playa del Carmen. With limited knowledge of Spanish, a backpack on my back and camera in hand we were definitely the minority amongst a flock of local Mexicans going about their usual Tuesday evening. 

    Glancing around there was colour everywhere, flags, brightly lit stalls, and even the plastic plates were bright blue (they cleverly wrapped the plates in plastic sandwich bags – a genius way to limit the amount of washing up, i’ll definitely be recommending this method for Spicery lunches!).

     

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    First up we opted for of a mixed meat Tortas:

    The tortas consisted of small cubed pieces of chorizo (chorizo seems to be everywhere over here), pork and chicken fried on a hot plate, alongside an oval shaped roll crusty roll.  A thick spread of mayonnaise, slices of fresh avocado, lettuce and tomato. On handing over the tortas we were offered pickled cucumber, radishes and an array of salsas (none of which had labels!). We took a punt and decided to try all 3. Without realising the green salsa (it was green habanero salsa) ran onto the bottom of the roll and within seconds i’d lost all function of my mouth. We asked the guy on the stall for some water, he didn’t understand so instead threw me a ruby red looking juice drink in a recycled water bottle. We found out that this was agua de Jamaica, something i’ve had before at Spicery HQ. A slightly tart and refreshing drink made from hibiscus flowers and sweetened with sugar, it certainly helped take the burn away.

    We threw our sandwich bags in the bin and handed back the plates for them to use on their next customers.

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    Carnitas Tacos:

    We wandered by a stall and the picture of the pig on the front obviously swayed us to stop. Carnitas are made by braising pork in lard until tender. Its flavoured with salt, cumin, mexican oregano, marjoram, thyme, bay leaf and crushed garlic. Once the meat is ready (after 3-4 hours) it is chopped up with a cleaver and served on tacos alongside chopped coriander, onion, salsa and guacamole. I have no idea what parts of the pig went into this carnitas, but i’m pretty sure they used most of it! The man serving us had a big wooden chopping board where be began chopping a big piece of pork with his cleaver, all the while the corn tortillas were being heated on the griddle. A friendly lady who spoke English helped us and  recommended the best salsa to have with our tacos – salsa verde, we thanked her for her advice and decided to play cautiously and only put a tiny spoon on the side of the tacos. Salsa verde is a green salsa made from tomatillos, chilies and coriander. It was bright, tart and had a right good kick. We added a squeeze of lime and some fresh onion/coriander mix, but it was the pork itself that stole the taco show. So tender and tasty, and you could tell it had been cooked for many a loving hour.

     

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    Burrito

    When i think of a burrito it conjures up an image of a gigantic filled floured tortilla mainly consisting of rice, beans, meat, cheese, guacamole, sour cream and a whole host of condiments. This is definitely not what we experienced here in Mexico. The freshly made tortilla wrap was filled with marinated spit grilled pork, iceberg lettuce and spread with refried beans. It was then toasted on the griddle until the tortilla was browned and crispy. Luckily for us they cut it in half so we could split it.

    The man pointed to the array of salads and salsa’s on offer, again without any signs of what was what, i decided to go for the lightest creamy looking sauce (in my head i thought it may have been ceasar salad dressing!). As i poured it on my plate and took a spoon of the cabbage salad after my first bite my lips began to tingle and i realised my error as soon as the man standing by me started laughing. He then told me it went from left to right in terms of heat. I’d obviously chosen the hottest sauce on offer (yet again!), and my reaction made a whole host of customers start chuckling and discussing my faux pas in Spanish. Embarrased i then decided to put some of the milder ‘salsa roja’ on instead.

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    Tacos Al Pastor

    Soldiering on i continued on the quest. Near enough every stall we passed on our street food adventure had a spit-grill with a rotating chunk of marinated pork slowing being spun around. Basically the Mexican version of a doner kebab! Traditionally the pork is seasoned with spices, mild chilli powder, onions and pineapple. I don’t think i could have forgiven myself had i missed out on shavings of spit roasted spiced pork. Apparently the adoption of the Shawarma spit-grilled meat was brought by Lebanese immigrants coming to Mexico. Tacos al pastor translates to ‘shepherd style tacos’ no sign of lamb here however.

    We went to the busiest looking stall,one guy was tending to the spit had the task of slicing off the pork directly onto the tortilla, another man adding  the chopped onion/coriander mix and wedge of lime. These were definitely my favourite of the 3 different tacos we tried. The charred sweet pork was delicious, i wasn’t going to run the risk of ruining it with an unknown salsa! The final taco completely finished me off, but then from the corner of my eye i saw dessert…

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    Marquesitas:

    We had spotted these ‘Marquesitas’ bicycle carts when we first came into the town & wondered what they were, a little google search later and we managed to find out that they are a local Yucatan sweet treat. Thin crepes cooked on a waffle iron and filled with Edam cheese and a sweet sauce of your choice. At first i wasn’t sold on the idea, cheese and nutella didn’t really sound like my idea of heaven, but when in Mexico do as the Mexicans do right?!

    ‘Marquesitas’ were the innovation of Don Vicente Mena, an ice cream vendor from Merida. He was in need of  a cold weather treat to entice customers during the winter months when his ice cream sales were low. Traditionally Edam cheese is used in marquesitas. The Dutch cheese seems like an odd choice, but it all began back in the 1800’s when Europeans brought it to the Yucatan peninsular and it’s been here ever since.

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    The carts serving these are equipped with gas flames that heat the waffle iron press. The stall holder poured the batter that he had premade in a big plastic jug onto the press and closed it shut. After a couple of minutes he then lifted the lid and spread a layer of nutella down the middle (fortunately for us he was out of the cajeta, i later tried this caramel at the hotel, safe to say i only tried it the once!) and then sprinkled the cheese on top. He then rolled it up and handed it to me in a napkin. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was just like eating a crunchy sweet crepe. The residual heat of the crepe melted the cheese a little, making a delicious mix of sweet and slightly salty flavours. If i wasn’t so full i think i could have nailed another.

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    My white t-shirt really told the true story of our adventure splattered by the different coloured salsas and red stains of hibiscus. I ensured i took far too many photos of all the food we tried in order for us to show off our adventure to the others back at the hotel who were probably tucking into their Italian pasta. We waved goodbye to our little corner of Mexico and headed back to the bright lights of 5th Avenue.

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    I’ve been to Thailand on a few occasions (before working as a development chef) and loved both the country and the food. I was eager to get back there to explore the cuisine in a bit more detail – and to hopefully find some dishes a bit more unusual than green and red curry and pad thai. Thailand did not disappoint! I began my journey in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s 2nd largest city is in the north of the country, fairly close to the borders of Lao and Burma.

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    Temple in Chiang Mai

    The cuisine of the area is known as Lanna cuisine after the Lanna kingdom which existed in the region between the 13th and 18th century.  As with southern Thailand fresh and fragrant lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, ginger, galangal and both fresh and dried chillies feature heavily in the cuisine, but unlike the south, dried curry powder blends are often used. This is because of the proximity of Burma – when British India occupied Burma many Indians settled there introducing their love of dried spices. A couple of other major differences are that sticky rice is eaten over steamed jasmine rice and traditionally less coconut milk appears in the dishes because coconut trees grow less easily here. I took a cooking class just outside the city, taught by the knowledgeable Lannee and her sister who have lived in Chiang Mai for 25 years.

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    Vannee (our knowledgeable cooking tutor)

    Firstly Vannee took us around a market and explained all the ingredients and building blocks of Thai cuisine.

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    Ready grilled green chillies to make nam prik num (they look like relatively mild green chillies here but pack a serious punch!)

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    Piles of Thai herbs at a market

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    Dried spices (pepper, star anise, coriander etc)

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    All the types of dried chillies

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    If you don’t want to make your own there’s plenty of fresh curry pastes available

    It’s well known that Thai food relies on a balancing act of sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter or in Thai – waan, brieow, ped, kem and kom. This is not necessarily just in a dish (although often one dish restaurants will have a selection of chilli, sugar and vinegar to add at the table to your taste) but as Thai food is often eaten as shared meals several dishes must balance so if you have a very hot stir fry you might have a sweet milder curry as an accompaniment along with a tangy salad and some bitter raw aubergines.

    Here are the dishes I learnt from Vannee (look out for them in your spice box over the next few months!)

    Gaeng Hang Lay Moo (sometime called Burmese Curry) is a rich and tangy curry made with pork belly with plenty of fresh ginger added at the end. It’s a little bit like a massaman but without the coconut milk and slightly less complex but I think equally delicious!

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    Khao Soi (Chiang Mai’s famous noodle soup)

    Khao soi is a mild curried noodle soup (made with a red curry paste and a Burmese curry powder) topped with crispy egg noodles and served with raw shallots, spicy pickled mustard greens and fresh lime.sausages

    Sai oua (Chiang Mai sausage at a night market)

    Who knew that the Thai’s had a multitude of sausages under their belts? The Chiang Mai version is known as sai oua and is flavoured with red curry paste and plenty of fresh lemongrass, coriander and shallots. They’re grilled over charcoal on the streets for a quick tasty snack. Having made a few sausages in my time with dried sausages skins, making this version with fresh intestines (yum!) was a little bit messy and not very photogenic!

     

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    Grinding the all important paste for the larb

    Larb, a spicy pork mince salad is said to be the one of the national dishes of neighbouring Lao and contains plenty of fresh kaffir lime leaves, chilli and lemongrass. The Lanna version larb muang moo includes lots of toasted dried red chillies and aromatic spices including star anise, coriander, Japanese pepper, black pepper, and cassia ground to a fine paste, fried with the pork then served almost like a dip with fresh salad.

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    Nam prik ong and nam prik num

    These two types of chilli sauce known are served with a selection of vegetables, pork scratchings, boiled eggs and sausage to dip. They’re eaten before the main course – a great way to start the meal! Nam prik num is the hot one made with the grilled green chilles and is a bit like a Mexican salsa. Nam prik ong is supposedly the Thai version of an Italian ragu as it’s made with pork mince and tomatoes.

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    Presenting (and eating!) all the dishes made at cooking school

    If you happening to be visiting Thailand and want to find out where to eat then this blog is great https://www.eatingthaifood.com/

    Or if you’re not lucky enough to be going to Thailand then eat here http://www.somsaa.com/ for amazing regional Thai food.

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    Cape Town – the tavern of the seas!

    December 15, 2016

    The spectacular city of Cape Town was so geographically important at one time that it was known as the axis on which Britain’s control of India hinged. As a meeting point and trading hub for centuries it’s had influences from many different countries resulting in a fascinating cultural mix as well as some really unique food! It was […]

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    Popular Ghanaian Dishes to Introduce Into Your Kitchen!

    September 28, 2016

    For most non-Ghanaian’s, the first contact with the country is through the food. With a fascinating historical heritage, rich cultural diversity, extraordinary scenic beauty, and friendly people, Ghana boasts of a wide selection of dishes served in either international restaurants or in ubiquitous local ‘chop bars’ or street stalls on every street corner both in-country and […]

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    Euro’s, Spices and Bouillabaisse: A culinary adventure in Marseille

    July 27, 2016

    Marseille has always been one of the main gateways into France and is a real cosmopolitan melting pot. History repeats itself in Marseille – where immigrants come, their culinary expertise follows with most immigrants coming from the Maghreb (a term to describe peoples from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). This makes the cuisine in Marseille completely different to […]

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    The Mystical Peruvian chilli pepper and the spicy flavour of death

    July 5, 2016

    When I was informed that South America is unchartered territory for The Spicery, I was gobsmacked, I assumed we had collectively travelled all over the world, but this would be a first and I was determined to leave a Spicery mark. I had been travelling in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia already, and while the food […]

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    The Chettiars of Chettinad

    February 21, 2016

      While Britain was being slowly submerged in rainwater over Christmas, I escaped for a few days to South India to soak up all the colours and energy as well as to discover some of the best food in the whole country. I was off to visit Chettinad – a small area south of Chennai that we’d come across […]

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    Mortar vs pestle: Thai home cooking

    January 6, 2016

    Many in Thailand don’t cook at home, or only on weekends – with street food readily and cheaply available, there’s little reason to fill your evening with labour intensive cooking. However, for those that do cook at home it’s often for a large family group. While staying in Bangkok in September I went to a cooking […]

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    Bangkok street food: it’s all about shrimp

    November 20, 2015

    After a few weeks of travelling around South East Asia we were glad to stop for a while in Bangkok, the “land of smiles”. Bangkok is full of beautiful temples and delicious food, (along with a good helping of chaos, cars and quite weird food!) Most people in urban Thailand actually don’t cook at home – […]

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    Kimchi-nius – The Rise of Korean Street Food In LA

    October 22, 2015

      Los Angeles is now home to the largest population of ethnic Koreans outside of Korea. It was only a matter of time before Korean food asserted itself as a major player in the street food scene here. Whilst in LA for a couple of days after travelling around California for 2 weeks, I decided […]

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    Bali – smoke and sambal

    September 14, 2015

    Since colonisation by the Dutch East India Company in the late 16th century, the nation now known as Indonesia has been one of the spice centres of the world. Its top spice exports these days are pepper and nutmeg, but a huge variety are grown across Indonesia – turmeric, cloves, ginger, tamarind, lemongrass…the list goes […]

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    The Curry Mile, Manchester

    September 14, 2015

    We set off on the quest for the perfect curry, having just a tank of petrol to aid our journey we headed ‘up north’ to curry capital – Manchester! As we followed the Sat Navs somewhat chaotic directions we found ourselves at the mouth of the lesser known Wilmslow Road, AKA ‘The Curry Mile’.  And […]

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    Red or Green? – New Mexico’s hot love

    August 14, 2015

    Many of the southern states of the USA have a long history and love of Mexican food, but each state has its own focus and adaptation… and its own deliciousness factor! Over in California (Cal-Mex) there’s more Hispanic influence, so dishes tend to be more tomatoey, with more veg, and are a bit milder. California grows […]

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    Yangon, Myanmar – and now for something completely different

    June 24, 2015

    Every Myanmar guidebook seems to open with the same Rudyard Kipling quote  – “this is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about”. Kipling might have been right when he wrote that in 1890, and it’s pretty accurate now as Myanmar really is completely different, particularly for our interest in the food that’s […]

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    Hanoi – streetfood highlights

    June 24, 2015

    En route to Yangon I stopped for a few days in Hanoi, Vietnam. Armed with the recommendations of Thanh and Trang, our resident Vietnamese students and expert spice-packers, I took a whistlestop culinary tour of Vietnam’s capital city….. A Vietnamese Spicery Vietnamese cooks tends to use fresh herbs to season the food more than dried spices but […]

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    Kuala Lumpur – Mamak me up

    February 24, 2015

    If there was a league table of countries ranked by the quality of their food, Malaysia would have to be right at the very top, or in the Champions League places at the very least. The combination of slightly sweet and intensely savoury flavours, sometimes a little bit fatty (in a good way!) and a generous […]

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    Coconut Chilli in Coorg

    February 16, 2015

    By Navina Bartlett – guest contributor and owner of Coconut Chilli They were the freshest beans I’d ever seen and they were still to be picked by my own small hands. I was visiting my family as a child and it was nearly lunchtime. My uncle owns an agricultural farm, in Bidadi, just south of […]

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    Mole Poblano in Puebla

    December 22, 2014

    Puebla is an incredibly attractive city in central Mexico full of beautiful churches, stunning Spanish colonial buildings decorated with old tiles and colourful painted walls, and it’s also home to some of the best food in the country.   The most famous dish here is Mole Poblano (pronounced Mo-lay, not like the animal that lives […]

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    Mexico City – eat like a chilango*

    November 21, 2014

      I went to Mexico City about 10 years ago and I still remember being surprised at how nice the climate was, the beautiful buildings in the old centre and the fantastic food, but I also remember being slightly on edge the whole time as it had this reputation for being the biggest, baddest city […]

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    Eating Adventures in Istanbul

    October 28, 2014

    Full of Eastern promise: eating adventures in Istanbul Proponents of turkish cuisine will argue that there’s so much more to the country’s food than kebabs and Turkish delight, but for a fair and balanced review of top tastes on our recent trip to Istanbul we thought it best to get down to business and just […]

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