Monthly Archives: April 2012

2012
04/25

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Crawfish Boiled: A Culinary and Cultural Tour of Acadiana

Crawfish Boiled: 

A Culinary and Cultural Tour of Acadiana

Text by JR Rosenthal

Photos by Skip Kaltenheuser

 

Appetizer at Crawfish Country

Ron “Gator” Guidry was my first entree to the elegance and friendly charm of Acadian French culture in Cajun Country. Guidry, the soft-spoken, Hall of Fame left-handed pitcher for the New York Yankees, hails from the Acadian-mecca of Lafayette, Louisiana.  While pitching in the media spotlight of the Big Apple during the salad days of great Yankee teams in the ‘70s, Guidry evoked the down-home Cajun blend of peppery humor and big-hearted warmth that makes a visit to the various Parishes of southwestern Louisiana so unique.

Guidry still lives in Lafayette, a medium-sized Southern city that feels like a small town, with its tree-lined streets, cafés and Catholic Churches-on-almost-every-corner. And yet this jumping-off point for a culinary tour of Cajun Country boasts a first-rate university (University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and a host of excellent restaurants and bars (see Acadian Highlights for recommendations).

 THE CAJUN TOUR OF GUSTATORY GREATNESS

DUPUY’S OYSTER SHOP

Abbeville, LA—THE PARISH OF VERMILION

108 S. Main St.

337-893-2336

Jody Hebert runs this local favorite with a deep respect for maintaining its tradition as the go-to place for oysters on the half shell, crab and crawfish.  Dupuy’s Oyster Shop feels like a neighborhood hangout, with a small, rustic bar that is the ideal spot for enjoying several strong drinks before sitting down to a meal that authentically presents the jewels of Vermilion Parish cuisine. “When I bought Dupuy’s  I knew that I was keeping alive a tradition for Cajun cooking that goes all the way back to when it opened in 1869,” says Hebert. “My goal has always been to dish out the great food that Vermilion Parish is famous for.”

My favorite local oyster specialties are Oysters De Ville on the half shell, char-grilled beauties with loads of garlic and butter, finished with Parmesan and Romano for a perfect crust; Oysters Dupuy, with a homemade crabmeat stuffing and a layer of pepperjack cheese that balances the spice in the crab stuffing with great depth of flavor; and Oysters Rockefeller, topped with a spinach cream sauce and grilled until the mozzarella boils and bubbles its way over layers of savory perfection.

Among other offerings at Dupuy’s, my top choice is the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake made with a spicy Bechamel (a mixture of flour, heavy cream and butter) as its binder and topped with crawfish, capers, diced tomatoes and drizzled with white wine and cream. The combination of the local lump crab, caught just hours earlier for maximum freshness, and the beautiful crawfish is enough to convince any serious foodie that moving to Abbeville and dining at Dupuy’s three or four times per week would be one of the greatest rewards for an obsession for Cajun culture.

No trip to Dupuy’s would be complete without an order of Fried Boudin Balls (boudin is a mixture pork, rice and vegetables) and Grilled Alligator Sausage on a Stick. What stands out most about Dupuy’s is that the food is locally sourced and is prepared with so much love and attention to detail that dining here borders on a religious experience.

 

Formal dress in Cajun Country

SHUCKS!

Abbeville, LA—THE PARISH OF VERMILION

701 West Port Street

337-898-3311

Other than the silly name, this eclectic purveyor of oyster dishes gone wild is a great hot spot in this beautiful Parish of Vermilion. Owners David Bertrand and Bert Istre have invented the most delicious oyster dressing you will find in Cajun Country—or anywhere, for that matter. What started as the house salad dressing (the Sugar Cane Vinaigrette) has evolved into a rarefied sauce that is the keynote speaker on one of the best oysters dishes ever produced.

Shucks Sugar Cane Pepper Glaze is the ideal pairing of sweet and spicy, and the perfect flavor complement to the smoky, sexy oysters that are fresh from the local oyster beds. The Candied Oysters are char-broiled with crumbled feta and blue cheese and drizzled with a generous helping of the pepper glaze.  As the pepper glaze and cheese caramelizes over the oysters, the chemical reaction “candies” the oysters in much the same way that sugar clings to a delicate chestnut in the classic French confection Marron Glace (chestnuts in a sugar syrup). Suffice it to say, I was able to easily manage to eat 12 Candied Oysters (12 oysters are what you get with the Super Sampler).

Other highlights on what is an extensive menu of local favorites include an excellent Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo, Creamy Oyster Stew and  Shrimp Remoulade.

 

Explore all things Arcadian at the St. Martinville Cultural Heritage Center

STEAMBOAT WAREHOUSE RESTAURANT

Washington, LA—ST LANDRY PARISH

513 North Main Street

337-826-7227

Chef/owner Jason Huguet is one of the most gifted rising-star chefs in the USA today. His knowledge of French/Acadian technique merged with his penchant for buying the best local seafood makes this elegant, yet informal, dining room a very special experience. My favorite element of the menu was the option of adding a side dish of Crawfish Etouffee to any main course for a mere $4.95.  And trust me, gentle reader, this not your grandmother’s etouffee! The purity of flavor in the local crawfish is the star of this dish, rather than the richness of the sauce that you would usually find in the French Quarter of New Orleans. My favorite main dishes on Chef Jason’s menu include the Shrimp Betsy, large gulf shrimp sautéed in a broth composed of olive oil, herbs and spices with hot French bread for dipping; the Stuffed Filet of Catfish with a filling of crabmeat, shrimp and crawfish; and Crawfish Palmetto, pan-fried and served on a bed of wild rice pilaf and topped with a crawfish cream sauce and Louisiana tails.

 

ACADIAN HIGHLIGHTS

  • Blue Dog Café (337-237-0005) in Lafayettefeatures the paintings of New Iberia, Louisiana, artist George Rodrigue and the best Sunday Brunch in Cajun Country.

    The paintings of George Rodrigue keep watch over the Blue Dog Cafe

  • Blue Moon Saloon & Guesthouse (877-766-Blue) is the hippest club/bar/hostel in Louisiana. A must for fun-loving types of all ages.
  • Regatta Seafood & Steakhouse (337-774-1504) in Port Arthur (Jefferson Davis Parish) offers excellent food right on the water, with a great pier for boaters to cruise in for a meal, cocktails or whatever.
  • Gator Chateau (337-616-4311) in the Louisiana Oil & Gas Park allows you to check out live alligators in an outdoor enclosure and to watch baby alligators in an air-conditioned viewing area.
  • Stansel Rice Mill (337-536-6140) in Gueydan, Louisiana, makes the most delicious aromatic popcorn rice you will ever try. Located 20 minutes south of I-10 between Lafayette and Lake Charles, it also offers tours of its crawfish pond (in season).
  • Bayou Cabins (337-332-6158) are the gateway to historic Bayou Teche and the place to stay in the historic town on Breaux Bridge located in beautiful St. Martin Parish. Owners Rocky and Lisa Sonnier are wonderful people who will take good care of all your needs.
  • Shadows-on-the-Teche Plantation Home and Gardens (337-369-6446) is a must-see while in New Iberia. This elegant mansion was built in 1834 by a wealthy sugar planter, and was home to four generations before becoming a National Trust Historic Site.
  • Mulate’s The Original Cajun Restaurant (337-332-4648) in Breaux Bridge offers Cajun music and rustic, authentic food in an informal and festive setting.
  • Harbourage House Bed & Breakfast (337-826-4875) in Washington, LA, in St Landry Parish is the place to stay if you are looking for beautiful gardens, a lovely home and gourmet food in a vintage B & B.

When crawfish attack, at Crawfish Town

 

 

 

IF YOU GO

American Airlines (800-433-7300) offers daily flights to Lafayette, Louisiana, from all over the USA and is the best option for making your trips efficient and cost-effective.

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2012
04/25

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The Great Aromas of Travel, by Steven Knipp

The Great Aromas of Travel

By Steven Knipp
Photos by the Author

The wonderful aroma of fresh bread, Beijing

The celebrated novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux once wrote that he found it virtually impossible to vividly describe the feeling of being cold. If a writer of his talents declines to try, far be it from me to make the attempt. But, really, who’d even want to – it’s not like feeling cold is fun.

For me, some of my fondest travel memories are smells. Scientists say there is a very strong association between smell and memory. No one yet understands exactly why the memories of individual smells linger so long, because the actual “receptor” cells in our noses that first “take in” the smell change about every 60 days. Still, the human brain can recognize up to 10,000 different smells.

The smell of fresh blueberry scones, Belfast, Northern Ireland

When I was a young boy, my parents would take me on day trips to New York City, as a birthday treat. So one of the first smells I associated with travel was the compelling odor of gasoline, in this case from city buses – an exotic aroma that did not exist in my home town. The slightly sweet tang I smelled in Manhattan was not the exhaust from the buses, but actually a colorless liquid called benzene, which was used in gasoline. Today’s higher environmental standards have reduced benzene’s use as an additive, but you can still sometimes catch a whiff of the stuff at gas stations. Ah, the nostalgia.

The genuine aroma of a peat fire is a rare teat in Ireland

On the way back from those early New York expeditions, my dad’s return route to New Jersey would take us home via the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River. And the moment we emerged from the tunnel’s dimness there would be this lovely scent of freshly brewed coffee. It wafted over the entire town of Hoboken and, in the decades before Starbucks, was the town’s major claim to fame, second only to the fact that Frank Sinatra was Hoboken-born.

The reason for the wonderful scent: Hoboken was also home to an enormous processing plant owned by the Maxwell House Coffee Company, a fact proclaimed by a huge rooftop sign: “Good to the Last Drop!” Unfortunately, Maxwell House closed its Hoboken plant in 1992, and so both of my beloved boyhood olfactory memories – fresh brewed coffee and the beguiling bouquet of benzene – are literally gone with the wind.

Of course, once I began traveling farther afield, my olfactory cells began to collect new and sometimes more exotic smells. Florida, for example, smells as might be expected – like suntan lotion. But if you are in the right place at the right time – early morning in central Florida – the wind is often infused with the very pleasant scent of fresh orange juice.

The enticing aroma of grilled lamb in Iran

Many people believe that Ireland smells like a peat fire. But that’s mostly myth. I’ve traveled widely there and have inhaled an authentic peat fire only once. This might well be because peat (a kind of ancient, dried, decayed foliage compressed over millions of years) has become almost too precious to burn. But when the Irish do decide to pack a fireplace with dried bricks of the prized stuff – as in Northern Ireland’s 400-year-old Bushmills Distillery – the warm and sweetly fragrant air flowing up from the large stone fireplace is indeed both romantically aromatic and strangely soothing.

Japan is, without question, the cleanest country on the planet, which means opportunities for new or strange aromas are limited. But if you are lucky enough to stay in a traditional ryokan, you will sleep on a tatami mat, a type of soft and densely woven floor padding made from reeds. If the tatami in your room is new, look closely. You will see a slight green tinge, and it will smell exactly like freshly cut grass. Bedding down for the night on a fresh tatami is an extraordinary experience, like falling asleep on a summer’s evening in a forest clearing.

Garlic prawns in Hong Kong

For many travelers, our most fondly remembered aromas are associated with food. For me, nowhere is this more true than in Hong Kong. When I first moved to the city years ago, I loved strolling the back streets of bustling Kowloon at dinner time. As the sun set, the district’s legendary neon lights would start to come on, and I would turn down any side street and find it virtually choked off with hundreds of hawkers, their ramshackle stalls overflowing with all manner of goods. On both sides of these narrow streets, above the shops and small stores, lived the bulk of Hong Kong’s Cantonese population. And every few seconds I would hear the sudden zzzzzzzzzz! … of hot oil sizzling in a wok. And instantly my nostrils would fill with the mouth-watering aromas of peanut oil, garlic, fresh ginger root, pungent peppercorns and fragrant sesame oil.

Roasting Arabic coffee, Wadi Rum, Jordan

While exotic aromas associated with food are usually pleasant, that’s not always the case. Once while traveling to a remote part of the Philippines, I had the opportunity to dine on tropical fruit bat. Unlike their northern cousins, fruit bats, as their name implies, live largely on fresh fruit, mainly mango and banana. Thus they are said to taste quite sweet, and so are often on rural menus is places all across the tropical world. Because of their thick red fur, these large flying creatures are often called “flying foxes.”

So perhaps I should not have been too repelled when my specially prepared supper arrived on my bamboo table, freshly roasted in sweetened coconut milk, its furry aroma instantly recalling the very off-putting boyhood memory of … wet dog á la New Jersey.

mell of egg tarts fresh from the oven is common in Macau

2012
04/25

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In the Land of the Yellow Dragon: A Visit to Zhangjiajie

In the land of the Yellow Dragon:
A Visit to Zhangjiajie

By Emily Grey
Photos by the author

I was a Chinese greenhorn. That is to say, I am an American who recently visited the People’s Republic of China for the first time. In mid-autumn, an unsuspecting journey took this hardy, fearless person and four newly met companions to the central southeast section of this most populous and increasingly powerful nation.

There, in northwest Hunan Province, lies a Shangri-la like no other earthly place. In my nine years as a global traveler, I’ve “collected” six continents. Until China, I had never seen “floating mountains,” an underworld more glorious than the ground above, and a series of other firsts and superlatives.

My destination was Zhangjiajie. The name refers to both a mountainous region and a city with over 1.6 million inhabitants, about 77 percent of who are minorities. The meaning of Zhangjiajie (Zhāngjiājiè ) is interpreted as follows: “Zhang” is a common Chinese surname, “jia” means family, and “jie” connotes “homeland.”

Circa 220 BC, the village government was formed. But it was not until 1988 that Zhangjiajie City, formerly called Dayong City, was founded.

In 1994, Zhangjiajie City officially received its new name. Neighboring Wulingyuan Scenic Area was created and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and World Biosphere Reserve two year earlier. Dramatic ravines, gorges, and waterfalls characterize this incredible spot. Over 760 wild animals and 3000 plants inhabit the bounteous woodlands. Shortly after the scenic area opened to the public, tourism took flight throughout Zhangjiajie.

American film director James Cameron saw the uniqueness of Zhangjiajie’s “floating mountains” when filming the all-time high-grossing blockbuster, “Avatar.” Scenes were shot at Hallelujah Mountain, previously known as South Sky Pillar. Zhangjiajie people opine that this place resembles the lush alien moon Pandora featured in the movie.

After a rain, ethereal ringlets of soft, wispy clouds encircle Hallelujah Mountain and the surrounding rocket-like, forested sandstone crags. Jutting up like skyscrapers, these freestanding, strangely shaped rock formations appear to be floating effortlessly above stunned earthlings and verdant grasslands, meandering golden-whipped streams, and placid lakes below. Undeniably, there is a coolness and supernatural look and feel to this area.

Zhangjiajie's Hallelujah Mountain

Zhangjiajie has a subtropical monsoon climate with an average temperature of 16 degrees centigrade (60 F). There is a plethora of astonishing treasures to behold year round. Besides therapeutic hot springs, ancient villages, and the unparalleled Hallelujah Mountain, three distinct natural wonders stand out.

YELLOW DRAGON CAVE

My discovery of Zhangjiajie began after a rain, which would have left some travelers crestfallen. For me, the refreshing crisp, moist air and lack of shadows produced a pleasantly haunting and soothing effect.

In 1983, the local militia discovered Yellow Dragon Cave, known locally as Huanglong. First made accessible to the public in 1984, this remarkable cavern is nestled in the Suoxi Natural Reserve. Part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Yellow Dragon is touted as China’s and the world’s “magical karst cave.”

Resident villagers believe the grotto was the holy home of a yellow dragon and spirits. According to legend, during the Southern Song Dynasty a monk from Yellow Dragon Hill in Jiangxi Province arrived at the site and decided to build a temple. Out of nowhere, a yellow dragon pounced on the earth, transforming the abyss below into the present-day cave.

Strolling past an aged water wheel, I mentally prepared to enter the underground. I was born in the Year of the Dragon, a venerable distinction according to the Chinese. Surely, the Yellow Dragon or its spirit would welcome me.

Outside, the cave is framed with a variety of bamboo. A gentle spring flows from the cracked rock mouth of the yellow dragon. Engraved on the stone is the following message: “Regardless of the depth, Divine is the dragon pool.”

Upon ducking through the lighted passage of longevity, I was immediately awestruck by a mysterious fairyland. A rainbow of hues softened hundreds of otherwise menacing stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and chambers. Yellow Dragon’s magnificent colors and enchantment remain constant despite the weather and other uncertainties outside.

A sturdy walkway and numerous illuminated steps facilitated travel, yet allowed a vigorous workout in the dank atmosphere. The cave’s wholesome circulation helps regulate temperature, creating warm air in winter and coolness in summer.

Considered the longest of its kind in Asia, this 20-square-kilometer wonder is part of a subterranean maze of intriguing features. Recognizing the Bell Rings Among Ice, the Path Sandwiched by Bamboo Grooves, and the Dance in the Dragon Palace evoked childlike amazement from every observer. Tramping over the Fairy Bridge was reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings.”

A small pond, three waterfalls, four pools, 13 grand halls, and 96 corridors grace the inner sanctum. Of the cavity’s two rivers, the Xiangshui provides ideal habitat for the protected giant salamander.

For a nominal fee, a quiet boat ride ferried us through a dimly lit environment. We soon stood near the base of an incredible stalagmite.
Insured for one hundred million yuan, “The Tower of Strength” is 19.2 meters (62 ft.) high, with a 10-centimeter (4-inch) diameter. Cave experts state that it takes at least 200,000 years to grow this high. The vertical height of the cave runs 100 meters (325 ft.) and higher.

Exiting through the door of happiness ensured amicable relations with all dragons. The complexity of Yellow Dragon left me yearning to see yet another contrast of Zhangjiajie.

Tickets cost around 80rmb per person. Allow two to three hours to explore the cave.

BAOFENG LAKE

Also within the Wulingyuan Scenic system and Suoxi Reserve, Baofeng Lake was formed when local people filled small faults with concrete to store water and the level eventually rose. Today, a dam encloses the 2.5-kilometer-long lake for crop irrigation.

Riding Sampan on Baofeng Lake

After trouncing up and down cave steps, it was an agreeable change of pace to drift gently over water. The afternoon’s partial overcast foreboded a benign eeriness as my group, guides, and I boarded an aquamarine canopied vessel.

To capture the allure of this sweet haven, I stood on the bow. Like a slowly opening fan, more and more stone peaks and evergreen trees gradually emerged, caressing opposite shores. Shimmering reflections glistened atop the water, as the sun peeked tauntingly from behind a cloud.

Gliding in the sampan over this beautiful, peaceful lake of tree islands, cascades, and mist created a surreal image. The pure air, clear water, and absence of crowds, commercialism, and noise are a rarity in China and almost anywhere.

The Mount Baofeng backdrop with a little stone bridge and waterfall in the foreground was as attractive as any Currier and Ives print. Glancing starboard, I noticed the mischievous grin of the lady of the lake, cleverly sculpted on a tall stone.

Soon, we approached a smaller boat tied along the shoreline. A pretty young woman smiled and waved.

Tujia are a major minority group inhabiting Zhangjiajie. Adorned in native apparel, this girl serenaded us with a Tujia folk song. Singing mountain, love, war, and labor songs is one of the Tujia people’s favorite traditions. Our Chinese guides interacted with the entertainer by “cross singing.” Though I could not decipher the language, it was fun to watch the young people in both boats singing, laughing, and conversing.

Tujla girls

Tickets cost around 74rmb per person. Allow about two hours to explore the lake area.

TIANMEN MOUNTAIN

We boarded a cable car at the rail station in Zhangjiajie City. With a little jolt, we were off.

A 28-minute ride to the top of Tianmen Mountain aboard the world’s longest cable car (7.5 kilometers – 4.6 miles –long, 1290 meters – 4200 ft. — high) was spine-tingling and spectacular. Peering in all directions, it was easy to see why this part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area is often called the “Soul of Zhangjiajie.”

Never was there a more all encompassing view of steep, massive cliffs with encircling alpine forests and patches of wildflowers below. Understandably, Tianmen means “Gate of Heaven” in Chinese.

In the distance lay a peculiar natural structure with an enormous oval hole, resembling a mirror. Tianmen Cave is actually a huge water-eroded gap in the mountain. Rising suddenly from 200 to 1100 meters (650 to 3600 ft.), it is credited as the highest cave elevation on the planet. In 1999, 800 million worldwide viewers watched a live telecast of three airplanes flying through the chasm during an aerial show.

Zigzagging like an elongated dragon’s tail, 11-kilometer (6.8 mile)-long Tongtian Avenue leads to the cave. Between “wows” I stood to glimpse and shoot images.

Tongtian Avenue to Tianmen Cave

The roadway’s 99 serpentine turns are in accord with an old Chinese saying that Heaven has nine layers or palaces. Built by the persevering Tujia people, the 180-degree turn is often described as a “miracle” and the “number one road wonder in the world.” Special buses ferry tourists along this whimsical route.

Our excursion ended at the Air Garden, located at the 1533-meter (4,982 ft.) pinnacle. Immediately, we headed on foot to a new attraction.

In November 2011, China opened a narrow, 200-foot-long transparent glass skywalk in the park. One of the highest in the world, this manmade wonder hugs the side of a cliff. The brave are rewarded with a view 1230-meter (4,000 foot) straight down view to the bottom of a ravine. Wearing cloth slip-ons over shoes helped prevent slipping and maintain clean glass.

On this heavily overcast morning, my companions and I disappeared through fog, which swallowed our narrow passageway. Hoping for a clearer glance below, I gingerly stepped onto a tiny platform. Clouds appeared to chase other clouds, and for a fleeting moment, we saw a conspicuous outline of the rugged landscape. Tied to trees and blowing gently in the wind were bright red banners encrypted with “good wishes” by Chinese tourists.

A separate planked trail meandered about a primitive forest comprised of rare tree species, medicinal herbs, and various flora. On the western side of the summit the newly reconstructed Tianmen Temple offered shelter from the blustery wind and cold. Worshippers drifted in and out, lighting incense and praying.

Boarding the cable car for my descent to Zhangjiajie City, I rejoiced. Clouds had dissipated allowing the grandeur of Tianmen Mountain to shine. Red maple foliage, golden leafed shrubs, and Chinese fir enhanced the majestic cliffs.

Cable car ride to Tianmen Mountain summit

Fittingly, this final leg of my brief discovery of Zhangjiajie was the crescendo of the trip. I could ride the cable car and hike the heavens out of Tianmen Mountain until I dropped.

The ticket cost of 258rmb per person includes all scenic spots in Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park as well as all cable car and shuttle bus rides. Allow three to four hours to explore the mountaintop.

REFLECTIONS

Back at the Sunshine Hotel in Zhangjiajie City, my guides, colleagues, and I feasted on Peking duck, squab, and a delicious assortment of other Chinese delicacies. Similar Americanized dishes are not nearly as tasty.

Afterwards, we were treated to a musical production called “Charming Western Hunan.” Written by a handful of local people, the play’s explosions of fire, drums, and colorful acrobats were as exciting as many a Broadway performance.

Upon departure, my hosts gave me an embroidered framed picture of Hallelujah Mountain. Crafted by the Tujia people of Zhangjiajie, the Chinese interpretation reads: God is in the mountain.

I learned that there is much more to see in China than adorable pandas and the outstanding Great Wall. Zhangjiajie was my trip of a lifetime. Every activity and scene was truly a surprise to this discerning dragon.

IF YOU GO

A small airport, primarily with night flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai, is located just outside Zhangjiajie City. A train station services other parts of China. Buses and taxis whisk visitors throughout the city and region.

In 2012 (Year of the Dragon), local tourism plans to entice more Americans and Europeans to their wonderful Zhangjiajie. Strategies are being implemented to build more high-end infrastructure. Currently, there is adequate lodging, tour services, shops, and restaurants catering to eastern and western tastes.

See: www.zhangjiajietourism.com

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