Breaking Dawn on New Year’s Day ~ Santa Barbara, CA

When night is almost done,
And sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the spaces,
It ‘s time to smooth the hair

And get the dimples ready,
And wonder we could care
For that old faded midnight
That frightened but an hour.

~Emily Dickinson

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Na Zdorovie! Feasting like a Tsar in Moscow, Russia

At the heart of Russian hospitality is a table laden with generous portions of homemade dishes like piroshki, borscht, picked herring, pelmeni, and syrniki along with full-to-the-brim shot glasses of tummy-warming vodka. Perhaps my favourite meal of all is a blinchik (crepe batter swirled in a skillet until it’s a paper-thin round) that is lined with spoonfuls of red caviar, dollops of sour cream, and a sprinkle of chopped dill. Rolled-up, this indulgence is perfectly accompanied by a glass a Russian bubbly or champagne.

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband

A blinchik with sour cream, caviar, and dill made by my husband last Russian Xmas.

Celebrating the New Year in Russia often means feasting on a family-style buffet of gastronomic delights; the chilly outside temperatures making carb-and-cream-rich foods, smoked fish, and pickled side dishes all the more palatable (and desirable). Historically,  Moscovites subsisted on a diet of locally sourced foods though overseas influences led Moscow to earn the reputation as a “city of gourmands”:

“Sumptuous banquets had a legendary status in the annals of Moscow. It was not unusual for 200 separate dishes to be presented at a meal. (Yet) sumptuous eating of this sort was a relatively new phenomenon. The food of 17th century Muscovy had been plain and simple – the entire repertory consisting of fish, boiled meats, pancakes, bread and pies, garlic, onion, cucumbers and radishes, cabbages and beetroot… It was not until the 18th century that more interesting foods and culinary techniques were imported from abroad: butter, cheese and sour cream, smoked meats and fish, pastry cooking, salads and green vegetables, tea and coffee, chocolates, ice cream, wines, and liqueurs. Although seen as the most Russian part of any meal (caviar, sturgeon, vodka), the classic zakuski (hors-d’oeuvres), such as fish in aspic, were not in fact invented until the early 19th century.”*

Note: such a standard for eating was not only reserved for courtiers; provincial families also enjoyed a healthy intake, and the gentry households could spend a whole day in a ‘chain of meals’, as described by the Russian poet, Pushkin.

credit: tsar-project.ru

Credit: tsar-project.ru

TIPS FOR TRAVELERS

For the Moscow-bound traveler, consuming Russia’s passion for food brings a different dimension to experiencing the cosmopolitan city: it delves deeper into the cultural; it makes one ponder food’s historical significance; it offers a greater understanding of the locals’ way of life. Stopping at a food kiosk and sitting down to a traditional Russian restaurant meal are, in my opinion, absolute musts when visiting this fascinating city and country.

Language

For the non-Russian speaking tourist, seeking out traditional foods is a little daunting given Cyrillic is one of the hardest languages to read, let alone comprehend and speak. I can understand why a traveler would stop to eat at one of the many sushi spots (there’s even a Nobu Moscow), or at (the growing number of) American food outlets like Shake Shack, Papa Beard’s, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Johnny Rockets… even Cinnabon— their food options are familiar, served in the safety net of a recognisable interior.

The truth is that many Russian restaurants do cater to the English speaker, and asking for a translated menu is the first step to overcoming the fear of not being able to converse in the local language. The result of making this effort is dining on a closer-to-authentic meal that satisfies that sense of curiousity for the new and different — one of the very reasons we travel in the first place.

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan's "Moscow on the Hudson".

Perhaps the sister deli to Manhattan’s “Moscow on the Hudson”.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from "Prokukti" (transl: "Products") -- a cafe on Red October island.

An example of a Russian-English menu. This one is from “Produkti” — a cafe on the site of the former Red October chocolate factory.

I was fascinated with Russian food during my time in Moscow, especially while browsing the well-stocked shelves of local foodstuffs. Some of my favourite times were spent in supermarkets, or gastronoms, lusting over freshly baked breads and pastry treats, rows of fresh and tinned fish, reams of boxed chocolates, and mouth-watering arrays of cold cuts and cheeses.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste supermarket) -- first two include baked cottage cheese; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Pastry filled goodies at Azbuka Vkusa (Alphabet of Taste, a gourmet supermarket) — first two include a baked cottage cheese filling; the last, roulette with poppy seed, was one of my favourites.

Below is a rough guide to foodie recommendations and a bite of what you could expect on a trip to Moscow. A helpful hint: do a little research prior to your trip and learn the names of key Russian dishes. Choose to dine in a Russian restaurant and, in the absence of a translated menu, gather up all your courage and request a few of those dishes that intrigued you in that pre-trip research.  Place any worries aside: You aren’t the first traveler daunted by the Russian language … nor the last!

Na Zdorovie! — “to your health”, and S Novim Godom! – “Happy New Year!”

May you indulge in gastronomic delights and delicacies as you see in a  prosperous 2014!

~~~

Zakuski, or starters

Smoked fish like trout, and herring pickled in a mix of vinegar, peppercorns, and sliced raw onions are essential zakuski.

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Seafood at Smolensky Gastronom

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Octopus, sardines, and more seafood at Smolensky Gastronom.

Cheese, cold cuts, and black bread are served at breakfast; also as appetizers.

Pesto Cheese  at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Pesto Cheese at the forefront. In the Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Jamon Iberico surrounded by salami and jerky. In Smolensky Gastronom.

Main Dishes

Beef Stroganoff: dating back to the Imperial years, this dish was prepared for tsars and gained its name from either Baron Alexander Stroganov in the early 1800s or Count Pavel Stroganov.

Beef Stroganoff wish a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasny Holmy.

Beef Stroganoff with a side of mashed potatoes is to the left of this image. Prepared at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy hotel.

Pelmeni – these are boiled minced meat dumplings and very tasty when dipped in a mixture of smetana (sour cream) and khren (horseradish).

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasny Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Pelmeni from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Frozen pemleni sold by the bag at Smolensky Gastronom.

Frozen pelmeni are commonly sold by the bag. This photo taken at Smolensky Gastronom.

Piroshki — pie-like buns that, when bitten, reveal savoury fillings such as meat, or cabbage, or fish, or mashed potato with mushroom. A snack that I fully indulged in during Moscow’s wintry days.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Take the opportunity to stop at a kiosk, where the food is cheap and tasty.

Blinchiki are pancakes/crepes and tastiest when filled with the luxury that is black sturgeon caviar — Ossetra, Beluga or Sevruga — or red salmon caviar, along with sour cream. Roll the crepe up and enjoy to the pops of salt mixed with creamy-sour goodness.

Soups, Salads, and Sides

Pickled sides can include mushrooms, cabbage, cucumbers, and/or tomatoes.

You'll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread of black caviar, cold cuts, and carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream).

You’ll noticed pickled mushrooms in this spread that centres around the black caviar. In the background are cold cuts. Right: carrot juice (meant to be mixed with cream). At Bochka restaurant.

Borscht — a soup painted red for its chopped beetroot; made with shredded cabbage, carrots, chopped potatoes, and even meat. The soup below contained lingon and/or cranberries giving it a slightly sour-tart taste.

Borscht topped with dill, from Botchka restaurant.

Borscht topped with dill, from Bochka restaurant.

Hailing from France is the popular Salat Olivier, a mayonnaise-based concoction of diced ham or chicken, eggs, carrots, potatoes, and pickles. It’s best enjoyed with a few slices of black bread. (I didn’t try it on this trip).

Desserts and baked goods

Croissants and cappuccinos — the French and Italian influence is alive and well. Mum and I couldn’t resist dining at this outpost of Le Pain, located on the old Arbat.

yes, we succumbed to the treats at Le Pain Quotidien

Yes, we succumbed to the treats at the international chain, Le Pain Quotidien.

Syrniki — these fluffy fried cheese pancakes are made of cottage cheese and egg; topped with sour cream, jam, and/or honey.

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Syrniki from Swissotel Krasnye Holmy restaurant, Acapella

Vatrushka — pastry marked with a middle of hearty baked cottage cheese (sometimes includes raisins).

Sochnik — pastry folded around cottage cheese.

Cottage Cheese ring (top left), piroshki (bottom)

Cottage Cheese pastries on the top shelf, and piroshki along the bottom.

Moscow dining and foodie recommendations:

Bochka restaurant — for traditional Russian food. Also owners of the oft-reviewed Café Pushkin. http://www.vbochke.ru

Acapella Restaurant, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel — an excellent Russian set menu. http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/moscow/dining

Shokoladnitsa — seems to be modeled after Max Brenner, it’s easy for travelers to select from a menu of salads, pancakes, desserts and coffee. http://www.shoko.ru

Azbuka Vkusa –  translated as “Alphabet of Taste”, this is chain of gourmet, pricey supermarkets located across Moscow. Open 24 hours.

Smolensky Gastronom – a well-stocked gourmet supermarket located on the Old Arbat, close to the entrance of the Smolensky metro.

Produkti Cafe and Bar — translated as “Products”, a name usually reserved for grocery stores, this is a hip dining spot on the island that housed the former site of Krasny Oktyabr’ (Red October Chocolate Factory).

Sign for "Produkti".

Sign for “Produkti”.

*Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figues

Notes:

–Many restaurants in Russia cater to smokers so ask for the non-smoking section if this is your preference.

–Tipping is at the diner’s discretion though it’s advisable to leave around a 10% tip as gratuities make up the bulk of the waitstaff’s wages.

–Lent takes place during March and April and this may mean some places serve fish instead of meat, and no dairy, eggs, milk and cheese. But in Western hotels and restaurants, this shouldn’t be an issue.

I didn't leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.

I didn’t leave Moscow without buying some chocolates made by Red October Chocolate Factory.

Festive Moscow and Dubai ~ Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you, dear readers. Sharing a bit of holiday cheer with scenes from my recent trip to Moscow and Dubai. With Russia in New Year-celebration mode (the country celebrates Orthodox Christmas on the 7th January), and UAE’s Dubai catering to a large expat population, the Christmas tree, decorative baubles, and snow (!) were a common theme throughout my December journey.

Wishing you as much light and joy as it brings me when looking over my photos. And a shout out to my guide from afar, my papa, and traveling companion, my mama,  who was determined to navigate Moscow’s underground and ice-slicked streets despite my all-over-the-metro-map itinerary. Much love to you both in scorching Sydney on this Christmas Day, Australia time!

MOSCOW

Light Show in Moscow’s Gorky Park

Light Show in Gorky Park

At the main entrance of Gorky Park

A tree made of fairy lights in Gorky Park

A tree made of fairy lights just outside Gorky Park

The GUM-Yarmarka markets and ice skating rink within the Red Square.

To the right is GUM, the pricey State department store.

To the right is GUM, the pricey State department store.

At the holiday markets in the Red Square

Holiday markets.

Tops of the Kremlin behind the markets.

Tops of the Kremlin behind the markets.

Whatever is left of the Red Square during the holiday season.

Whatever is left of the Red Square during the holiday season.

Outside our home-away-from-home, Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel, Moscow (which is amazing by the way. More info to come on that property).

Outside Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel Moscow

Outside Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Hotel Moscow

Metro Lights

Lights by the metro

At Kropotinskaya Metro Station

Flurries: I used the camera’s flash and unexpectedly, this is the effect I got.

I used a flash and unexpectedly got this effect with the flurries

Church of the Holy Martyr Clement, Pope of Rome (1762—1774) near Tretyakov Gallery/Trekyakovskaya Metro

The festive facade of an Italian cafe/restaurant in a lovely neighbourhood near the centre of Moscow.

On Klimentovsky Lane in the pedestrian zone near Tretyakovskaya Metro

On Klimentovsky Lane in the pedestrian zone near Tretyakovskaya Metro

Ded Moroz, or Father Frost, is Russia’s Santa Claus. Ded Moroz is said to bring presents to children, however, unlike the secretive Santa Claus, the gifts are often delivered “in person”, at New Year’s Eve parties and other New Year celebrations.*

Ded Moroz

Ded Moroz

A “Snoopy” decorated Christmas tree in a main hall of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Inside the Bolshoi Theatre

Inside the Bolshoi Theatre

Christmas in a Matryoshka doll.

A store on the Old Arbat street.

A store on the Old Arbat street.

DUBAI

Through the looking glass — at the indoor ski field in 25C+ Dubai.

At the Mall of the Emirates.

At the Mall of the Emirates.

Baubles.

At Deira City Center.

At Deira City Center.

A snowman, and a snow machine

At Burjaman Mall.

At Burjaman Mall.

More shops; a couple more Christmas trees.

At Wafi Mall.

At Wafi Mall.

At the Wafi Mall Bazaar.

At the Wafi Mall Bazaar.

And decorations at the most expensive, and largest, mall of them all – the Dubai Mall.

DSC_0728PSDSC_0773PSDSC_0754PSA Christmas vacation on the Arabian Gulf.

In the Jumeirah area, near the 7-star Burj Del Arab hotel.

In the Jumeirah area, near the 7-star Burj al Arab hotel.

*Wikipedia

Moscow! Moscow!

Dear bloggers, dear readers,

In less than a week I am Moscow-bound. I’m off to meet my mama in the motherland. It’s been over a decade between visits; a time when mum and I travelled to experience hot White Nights rather than freezing snow-white days.

I recently read in a travel magazine that “in Moscow, inaccessibility equals exclusivity… But the effort you have to invest usually pays off…” Given its subzero temperatures, I am hoping to lessen the effort a tad, so I’m hungry for your travel tips. What is inaccessible? What is exclusive? I want to find the best cafes — any ideas? Where can I eat the most delicious borscht? What are the new must-see galleries? Do you have a favourite Metro station? Is there a Christmas market?

The way back to LA will be via Dubai for a few days — would love your advice too because it’s been, well, a decade between trips to the UAE…

Below is a recent image of Moscow… I’m gearing up to brave the freeze…

inMoscowHeader image credit: http://transfurniture.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/matryoshka1.jpg

Circus Magic ~ Irvine, CA

Retreating into a dreamscape of extravagance, beauty, and sensory delights –  this, for me, is Cirque du Soleil.

I’ve been to a few of these magnificent shows and by far my favourite is Totem. I saw it recently in Irvine, located an hour’s drive from Los Angeles. That evening, the Grand Chapiteau beckoned with its welcome burst of colour in a field of darkness; magic was brewing inside the yellow-and-blue-striped tent.

Sitting ringside to witness the “evolution of mankind” is a surreal experience in itself; adding dazzling acrobatics and dizzying props creates a journey most fantastical. An artistic alchemy stirs in the space between science and myth, a place where imagination seems to have no bounds: Amerindian artists dance through hoops, a catch-me-if-you-can trapeze act rouses romance, a contortionist backbends and arm balances to show strength in the face of struggle, Crystal Ladies juggle glittery squares of material with out-of-this-world hand-and-foot coordination, a sensual roller-skating duo spins with controlled passion, unicycles and rings add a traditional circus element; there are flamenco beats, African drums, and the tunes of Bollywood; visual effects turn a blank canvas into an otherworldly space coloured with the intricate yet bold costumes inspired by amphibians, lost civilizations of South America, and Aborigines (all designed by Australian Kym Barrett, known for her work on Romeo+Juliet and Matrix movies).  The show is a sure-fire way to awaken the anthropologist in all of us.

Forty-seven artists from 15 countries, and 73 support staff from 9 countries, make up the cast of Totem. Away from the desk, away from the demands of work, away from the news and all that goes with it, performances like these unite us and simply request that we be present to delight in a marvellous experience; to leave (most assuredly!) in a state of wonderment, and with the feeling that there’s a lot to celebrate in the world.

1957_OSA_PS_TOTEM_3406PS1957_OSA_PS_TOTEM_2285PSCDS_totem_russianbars_OSA_PS_TOTEM_(1)PS_SA13990_v5PS0SA36015_v5PS0R4A1345_finale_RPS0R4A1535_finale_RPS_SA13752_v5PS0R4A1264_finale_RPSAs cameras weren’t allowed, there images are ©2010 Cirque du Soleil Inc.

Fall in Los Angeles

Autumn has fallen. Los Angeles is covered in pops of reds and yellows. And, while the temperatures have slightly dropped, we’re all still walking around in summer T’s.

Temescal Gateway Park, Pacific Palisades

Temescal Gateway Park, Pacific Palisades

Temescal Gateway Park

Temescal Gateway Park

The Great Lawn at Temescal Gateway Park

The Great Lawn at Temescal Gateway Park

A view of Topanga State Park

A view of Topanga State Park

Eagle Rock Trail in Topanga State Park

Eagle Rock Trail in Topanga State Park

Stunning LA from Griffith Park

Stunning LA from Griffith Park

Looking over LA and the Pacific Ocean from Topanga

Looking over LA and the Pacific Ocean from Topanga