First of all, Happy 2023!
Mexico, Turkey, Japan, AND Georgia for good measure– how am I going to make a “top five meals of 2022” list when I was in some of my favorite countries for food? Better just take one from each, and then reveal a mystery country to finish the list off.
Cue the world’s smallest violin.
Mc-Fisher, La Paz, Mexico
Mc-Fisher is an exemplar of a restaurant wherein I’d be satisfied just by uttering the words “here, take my money.” Case in point: I was in La Paz for a long weekend in January. With a number of local restaurants vying for my loot, I … still ended up going to Mc-Fisher four times.
Aguachiles, tacos stuffed with shrimp, peppers, and queso asado (literally, grilled cheese, akin to a Mexican halloumi), seafood omelettes with chipotle sauce, and manta ray soup were just a small amount of what I couldn’t stop eating. My mouth was frequently on fire due to the freshness of the chilies in the aguachiles — you will learn that I always get things extra picante — and that queso asado finishing off anything and everything was excellent.
If you’ve got company, bring a blanket to the beach, get Mc-Fisher to-go, and have a nice Baja California Sur picnic.
Green Bazaar, Kutaisi, Georgia
What the heck are we looking at? Edible candles?
Those irregularly-shaped hanging globs of sweet deliciousness are called churchkhela (ჩურჩხელა). Consisting of walnuts or hazelnuts dipped in tatara — a blend of flour, sugar, and badagi, or pressed and condensed grape juice — churchkhela are a crunchy, chewy, and long-lasting natural Fruit Roll-Up, but good. Once they’re made — after a process that involves repeatedly dunking and drying them — they can be stored for 2-3 months, to soak up that hyperlocal flavor. Even more exciting, instead of grape juice, they can be made with apple, plum, or peach juice, too, and with pumpkin seeds.
Whether you’re going on a hiking trail, a nature walk, or need a school snack, churchkhela would be a delectable choice.
Katmerci Zekeriya Usta, Gaziantep, Türkiye
When it comes to eating, Türkiye (fka Turkey) might be my favorite one in the world thus far. I find it to be an extremely balanced country for food, and one that I believe does nearly every facet of cuisine right, from salads, dairy, and condiments, and pickles to bread, to grilled meat and dessert. Japan may kick its butt in the snack food department, and Mexico for the spice and sheer variety of flavors, but overall, Türkiye is a delight for the taste buds.
On that note, katmer is one of those foods that left me incredulous about never having heard of it before March 2022. And I was in Gaziantep, the spiritual home of baklava, so it’s not like I needed to find another dessert to try. Still, one bite of the phyllo dough squares stuffed with kaymak (clotted cream often made with water buffalo milk), topped with local pistachios, and brushed with butter, and I was hooked.
I had it for dessert, that is, at the end of the day. But apparently it’s most commonly served for breakfast. I can see why– it’s a heavy dish. Although you can try it in other Turkish cities, katmer is most fun to eat in its hometown Gaziantep. That way, you can be a massive glutton and compare it with baklava from one of the countless shops around town.
蕎麦処 大藪 (Soba-sho Ooyabu), Kanazawa, Japan
It warrants repeating that this was not an easy top five meals list to make. Japan alone could’ve had its own top five; the same goes for Mexico and Turkey.
Ironically, the one I chose for Japan was neither the main dish, nor something I expected to order.
But it was the right season — autumn — to go for mushroom tempura. Maitake, shiitake, matsutake, kikurage (wood ear)– all brilliantly tempuracized, that is, lightly fried to add crunch, but not so much as to take away from the earthy flavors of the star (in this case, fungi).
A good food hint about Japan is that something in season will be on menus almost everywhere. Moreover, if there’s a town or area known for that ingredient, it will be patently obvious. One suggestion: if you’re in the Tokyo area during the fall season, and you like sweet potatoes, visit Kawagoe.
Mesón Do Pulpo, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The wild card country to round out the top five meals of 2022 list is none other than Spain. Guess it makes sense, as I’m still somewhat obsessed with the Ametller Origen supermarket chain from Barcelona (they have quite a spread of tomatoes), and where canned seafood is actually darn good.
But why have canned when you can try the fresh version?
Wow. Galicia, you are a seafood paradise. Navajas (razor clams), percebes (barnacles), almejas (mussels) … it’s all there, all bien sabroso (very tasty).
Tugging at my heartstrings, however was a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela called Mesón Do Pulpo, or the “octopus inn.” I grew up eating octopus, squid, and shrimp — and yes, the cholesterol was through the roof — so I went for a visit to this delightful-sounding place.
The order was easy: sliced octopus drizzled with olive oil and dusted with paprika, fried calamari, and oven-fresh bread. Simple but well-executed, and accompanied by a local brew called Estrella Galicia. That’s the life, albeit a woefully unhealthy one.
As I’m thousands of miles away from all of these options, I’ve decided to whip out my own miniature violin. Meanwhile, what’s in store for 2023? More superlative manta ray soup and shaved pistachios? A different wild card country? I have absolutely no idea, and I’m fine with that.
Have you been to any of the above places? What would your top five meals list of 2022 look like?