Monday, October 27, 2008

Swamps and Bayous

Bayou AlligatorLouisiana has the most important wetlands in America - a watery world of bayous, marshes, and barrier islands that produces and transports more than a third of the nation's oil and ranks second only to Alaska in commercial fish landings. As wildlife habitat, it makes Florida's Everglades look like a petting zoo by comparison.

The wetlands of Louisiana have acted as a storm barrier and a rich wildlife habitat for ages. However, with the discovery of oil, the wetlands were criss-crossed with man-made canals; also a system of levees were built to prevent flooding populated areas. Some of these human interventions are now thought to be responsible for the rapidly disappearing stretches of wetlands, leading to higher risks of hurricane damage to a city that lies 80% below sea-level!

New Orleans Bayou Tour
New Orleans Bayou TourI took a Swamp and Bayou tour during the weekend that gave me a first-hand look at these wetlands. Wiki defines bayou as "a small, slow-moving stream or creek, or a lake or pool that lies in an abandoned channel of a stream". We were driven across the Mississippi a bus and arrived at a small town on the edge of the wetlands. A local guide gave us a brief tour of the nesting habits of alligators, snapping turtles, egrets and other native creatures of the swamp. I learnt that there are about 36 varieties of snakes, and only six of them are deadly. That snakes with a yellow stripe adjacent to the red are dangerous, while those with a white stripe adjascent to the red are not.

New Orleans Bayou TourOur local guide was a fisherman who took us on a boatride throught the bayou. He told us that shrimping season has begun. That moonlit nights are better as the moonlight attracts the shrimps near the surface. I also learnt that people could hunt turtles; only some varieties, including sea turtles, are endangered and cannot be hunted. The swampy shores of the bayou had a lot of cypress trees; many with roots in water. These tress apparently take well to water, and their roots keep growing.

New Orleans Bayou Tour
New Orleans Bayou TourI found out that these swamps are only about eight foot deep but the floor is very soft and filled with plants, leeches and all kinds of creepy-crawly things! By the time we got back on solid ground after two hours in the boat, we had seen a number of alligators, turtles and birds in their natural habitat. I also saw some of the flood barriers that have been put into place after the Katrina disaster. All in all, this was an interesting tour; it's amazing how large the wetlands here are; the entire area they cover is bigger than many of the smaller European nations.

New Orleans Bayou
New Orleans Bayou
New Orleans Bayou
New Orleans Bayou
New Orleans BayouAmong the many interesting things I saw in New Orleans, one was their tradition of over-the-ground burials, sometimes refered to as Cities of the Dead. While driving to the airport, I passed a very large cemetary with tombs that were erected above the ground. This tradition began due to the soggy and water-logged lands in this region. You can see rows and rows of structures small and big that house the mortal remains of people within these cemetaries.

Plantation tours are also popular with many tourists who visit New Orleans. Showcasing the genteel Southern living of the past, these plantations also are a reminder of the slave labor of those time. New Orleans at one time was the center of the slave trade where cruel slave auctions were routine. The French first came into this city with their slaves. This city also saw migrants from Haiti, probably the only place where slaves fought and won against their white masters during an uprising.

I left New Orleans on a bright morning. While there are many signs of the damage wrought on this city by the recent hurricanes, the image I carried back was the fun and merry-making at the French Quarters and the aroma of mouth-watering, spicy food.

Related Posts:


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Food Lover's Haven - Part II

Emeril's in New OrleansEmeril Lagasse began his cooking career in New Orleans. His signature restaurant, Emeril's, was his very first restaurant. Located in the business district, but within walking distance from Canal Street and the Marriott hotel, this restaurant has a nice, old-world charm. Soaring ceiling, exposed brick walls, wrought-iron accessories and antique lighting fixtures add to the mood.

Emerils at New OrleansWe had made reservations and they had a table ready for us, right next to the window from which a street lamp flooded us with light. We ordered a New Zealand Pinor Noir and perused the menu. I decided to try a traditional Gumbo; this dish is a thick, spicy stew made of vegetables, meat and boiled rice. The Gumbo of the day was made with Andouille saugages and chicken, and poured out of a ordinary aluminium pan for that authentic touch.

GumboMy entree was a Dusted Jumbo Gulf Shrimp with brown butter, sweet potato Grits, beans, Benton’s Bacon, smoked corn and mango chow chow. The shrimps encrusted with the bacon strips was overall was a very interesting dish. Those who selected the bacon-encrusted Redfish, the Grilled Swordfish, and the Pan-roasted Rainbow Trout were happy with their choices too.

Jumbo Shrimps
SwordfishWhat I will remember most was the out-of-the-world Sweet Potato Cheesecake I ordered for dessert. The cheesecake was amazingly good and I have not had anything like it before.

Sweet Potato CheesecakeThere was a cool wind blowing from the river, making the walk back pleasant in the humid evening. The mighty Mississippi river curves through the city very close from here and one can clearly hear the horns of the boats at night. The port of New Orleans is the busiest one in the USA and more than 600o vessels move through it on the Mississippi every year.

Mississippi River, New OrleansThe next day, I wasn't too hungry and decided to have a late morning brunch. The concierge had recommended Petunia's, which some say is the best place to eat breakfast in the French Quarters. This restaurant off Bourbon Street looks completely unremarkable but has history. Petunia's is housed in a 3-story Creole townhouse erected in the 1830's by a noted cabinetmaker of the time. The interior is especially fascinating for his mastery of intricate details of the all cypress millwork including the mantels surrounding the original coal-burning fireplaces.

Petunia's New OrleansBehind the main building is a two-story dependency, separate from the main building, frequently referred to as a slave quarter in which the cooking for the family was done. Initially called the St. Louis Street Crepe Shoppe, the name was changed to Petunia's in the 80s, when a full-service menu was added which features Cajun and Creole dishes and other New Orleans favorites.

Petunia's New Orleans
Crepes at Petunia'sI ordered one of their famous crepes, the St. Francis, stuffed with shrimp, Louisiana crabmeat, ratatouille, and cheese sauce. They claim their crepes are the largest in the world, and the size was indeed daunting. They also have some great dessert crepes, but be forewarned - everything here comes in really large portions!

Streetcar in New OrleansBourbon Street was quiet during the afternoon as I walked back. There were a couple of good galleries selling local art and I bought a couple of them. The French Quarter of today is the old city, which was built by the French in the early 18th century. Bourbon Street was named at that time and continues unchanged. The French also brought in Mardi Gras and African slaves into America at that time-period. During the four decades of Spanish rule, this city got olive oil cooking and the elegant wrought-iron balconies. The streetcars here (single car, unlike the ones in Calcutta which have two cars) are another quaint sight you can see even today.

Related Posts:


Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Food Lover's Haven - Part I

French Quarters New OrleansNew Orleans has so much to offer a foodie. In addition to the unique Creole and Cajun cooking, the city is home many seafood restaurants and upscale fine-dining restaurants, many run by celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. In addition to gumbo, crepes and jambalaya, I saw cafes advertising po' boys - a traditional sandwich of meat or seafood served in a baguette made of Louisiana French bread. During my three days here, I was able to sample some of these culinary delights that left me wanting more.

Emeril's NOLA New OrleansEmeril's NOLA restaurant is located in the heart of the French Quarters. This casual dining restaurant puts a contemprary spin on classic Creole and New Orleans dishes and is very popular, for good reason. I walked in without a reservation and got lucky. There was a group of people waiting for seats, but I was the only one eating alone, and they had exactly one spot free at the Chef's table!

Emeril's NOLA New OrleansThis was a great spot to watch the activity in the open kitchen - activity which was intense and busy throughout. I sipped on a Pinot Noir and nibbled on the excellent spiced cornbread as I awaited my starter and watched the action in the kitchen.

Emeril's NOLA New Orleans
Emeril's NOLA New OrleansI had ordered Gulf Oysters and Crabmeat, baked in the wood oven with garlic butter and herb bread crumbs. The oysters were cooked right before my eyes in the huge wood-burning oven. The oysters were served in the special iron skillet they were cooked in. I oysters were amazingly delicious.

Emeril's NOLA New OrleansPurists prefer their oysters raw, with no dressing save for lemon juice. Similar to wine, oysters can be very salty or sweet, with notes of cucumber, melon, herbs, butter, flint, or copper, all depending on the water in which they grew. However, newbies should remember Jonathan Swift who said, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster". For you, cooked oysters may be a good way to get used to the taste.

Emeril's NOLA New OrleansFor my entree, I had selected their signature Garlic Crusted Texas Redfish which was cooked in the wood-burning oven with Brabant potatoes, wild mushrooms, bacon, and Sauce Beurre Rouge. This was another standout dish that I thoroughly enjoyed and will recommend to anyone who visits this restaurant.

Emeril's NOLA New OrleansThe dessert was a double chocolate bread pudding, good but not particularly noteworthy. The service was exceptional; the waitstaff was fast, friendly and helpful throughout. I noticed the restaurant was filled to capacity during the entire time and there were people waiting for seats even when I walked out satiated.

For lunch the next day, I strolled into another great place on the (in)famous Bourbon Street. Ralph Brennan is one of the town's most respected restauranters and a visit to Red Fish Grill, which he owns and runs, will show you why. The restaurant’s decor features a sea colored etched floor, hand-painted tables, oyster mirrors, sculptured palms, photographs of Louisiana bayous and bayou residents and a sea of metal fish in neon swimming overhead. The food is equally interesting.

Red Fish Grill New Orleans
Red Fish Grill New OrleansI began with the Coconut Crusted Shrimp, which is jumbo Louisiana shrimp fried in a sweet coconut batter, and served with Cajun cole slaw and pepper jelly.

Red Fish Grill New OrleansI followed with the Hickory Grilled Redfish, a fillet of fresh redfish grilled over hickory and served with tasso and wild mushroom Pontalba potatoes, topped with Louisiana lump crabmeat and lemon butter sauce. My waitress also added some batter-fried oysters as a side.

Red Fish Grill, New OrleansWhile the shrimp was interesting, it was the redfish entree which was truely memorable. This restaurant also boasts of a well-stocked oyster bar which is worth trying. Incidentally, Red Fish Grill was the first prominent restaurant to reopen after Katrina, exactly 31 days after the hurricane devastated this city.

Bombay Club New OrleansThere are other restaurants that were on my list but I didn't have the time. I am told K-Paul's is one of the most popular ones here; however, I discovered they don't open on Sundays! Another interesting restaurant with a British ambiance and great food is the Bombay Club. Both these restaurants are in the French Quarters area.

Related Posts:


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Arriving in The Big Easy

French Quarters, New OrleansThe jazz funeral scene from the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die always comes to mind when I think of New Orleans. This unique New Orleans tradition consists of a brass band followed by two lines of mourners and the casket. That's just one of many unique traditions of the Big Easy. No one quite knows how the city got it's nick name. Many speculate the name was given by the many musicians who found this a easy place to ply their trade; others say it was because of the relaxed laws on alcohol and low costs of living.

French Quarters, New OrleansThere are many things about New Orleans that make it worth a visit (or two): the historic French Quarters; the unique Creole and Cajun culinary tradition; and of course, Mardi Gras. New Orleans and Rio are the two cities most known for its Mardi Gras celebrations. Shops lining the streets near my hotel were filled with Mardi Gras masks, bead necklaces and voodoo dolls. Art celebrating the history of blacks and books on Creole-Cajun cooking were everywhere too. Neighbouring Bourbon Street - filled with strip clubs, saloons and bars - was particularly festive on this day due to the game being held. The local New Orleans Saints won decisively leading to more celebrations on these streets. Loud music, drinking and dancing followed all the way into the night!

French Quarters New Orleans
French Quarters, New Orleans
French Quarters, New OrleansThe French owned the port of Orleans until Napolean sold this territory to America! This city was also under Spanish rule for a while. The French Quarters are a reminder of the French past and one of the city's most popular attractions. The unique culinary tradition also comes from this city's rich multi-cultural past, primarily Creole and Cajun.

French Quarters New Orleans
French Quarters, New OrleansA Creole is anyone born in the colonies of European ancestry, French or Spanish or both. Creole cuisine developed in New Orleans from a mixture of traditions of many nationalities - the culinary arts of the French, of Spain mixed with the American Indian influence, and all stirred together with the natural skill of the African. Cooking ingredients were plentiful here; seafood and wild game, wild herbs and vegetables, the best produce from upriver, spices from South America, and worldwide imports into the country's second-largest port. Additional influences came with the German and Italian immigrations just before the turn of the century. The resulting food is called Creole.

French Quarters New Orleans
French Quarters, New OrleansCajuns originated in southern France, emigrated in the early 1600's and settled a colony called Acadia, when all of Canada was controlled by France. In the mid-1700's the British drove them out when they would not swear allegiance to the King and renamed the the province Nova Scotia. Many of them migrated to Louisiana, where they were welcomed by the large French population. They settled primarily along the waterways of southwest Louisiana and turned to their traditional practice of fishing and farming for a living. Cajun cooking is old French cooking, usually in one big pot, adapted to the ingredients available, expanded by the herbs and spices growing wild in the area. Cajun food was the food of the isolated country people.

French Quarters New OrleansIt took me over 26 hours of flying and waiting in airport lounges to get here. It was a very busy afternoon when I began my trip in Pune. I was on my phone all through check-in and the boarding process. I had run out of charge by the time I got into Mumbai and had to charge the phone as I ate dinner before catching my flight. I was at the Pan Asian in the Grand Maratha hotel.

Pan Asian Grand Maratha
Pan Asian Grand Maratha
Pan Asian Grand MarathaThe Sichuan Hotpot looked interesting on the menu but that required me to move to a table with a grill in it. I decided to have something else instead. I began with Crystal Prawn Dumpling followed by the Thai red curry with red snapper. For dessert, I selected the Sticky Date Cake, a reinterpretation of a Balinese recipe with lemon-honey drizzle. The dumplings were unremarkable, but the red curry was excellent and dessert was very good too.

I slept all the way to Singapore. At Singapore, after freshening up at the SilverKris lounge quickly, I boarded the 747 bound for LA via Narita. The noodle bar at the ANA lounge in Tokyo revived me with a spicy, hot Udon noodle soup with beancurd. Udon is made of buckwheat and the noodles are thicker than ordinary noodles. I was sufficiently to watch the first two episodes of critically acclaimed Mad Men.

Noodle Soup at the ANA LoungeImmigration in LA was a breeze but then I found I had a five hour wait before my United Air flight to New Orleans. It was midnight in New Orleans when I got there. My hotel, the Marriott on Canal Street, was alive and crowded even at that time. I have to mention the high-tech elevators in this hotel (reminded me of the ANA Hotel in Tokyo). You punch the number of your floor into a panel in the elevator bank and it directs you to a particular elevator. When inside the elevator, there are no buttons to punch. I was on the the 22nd floor and the view of the city below was fantastic.

Breakfast at 5Fify5 Marriott New OrleansNext day I woke up to find I had left my AC adapter home. Thankfully, there was a Radio Shack two blocks away and I found one. After a hearty breakfast at 5Fifty5, the hotel's lobby restaurant , I was on my way into the French Quarters to discover the many charms of this city.

Related Posts: