The trend this summer, with the economy and the dollar growing weaker than Superman in a kryptonite speedo, is toward "staycation." It’s a good idea, in theory, but you need to get away from your “stuff,” both the literal stuff and the figurative stuff, if you’re going to relax and experience something new. And that can take some work—or at least some creative planning.
One way is to sample food that’s outside your usual repertoire. One New Year’s, Andy and I resolved that each month in the coming year we’d try a new cuisine, see at least one play and take a hike somewhere outside the confines of the city. Of course, resolutions are made to be broken, and while we were unable to carry through with all three components of our resolution for the entire 12 months, we did manage to enjoy some cuisines with which we were unfamiliar.
Some of our discoveries:
*We found out how cultures can meld when we visited a Chinese Islamic restaurant. While you don’t typically find bread on the table in Chinese restaurants, this one featured a gargantuan round of sesame bread that carried us through the meal and over the next few days. I’ve since heard stories of Chinese Islamic restaurants that serve even larger rounds than the one we got. Apparently, it’s a staple of the cuisine.
*At an Ethiopian restaurant, we discovered the pleasures of eating communally and with our fingers. Our two huge steaming trays, one of vegetarian stews and the other of assorted meats, were served with injera, the famous crepe-like, sourdough-tasting flatbread that functions as both utensil and food.
*We tried a Persian restaurant to see how the food differed from other Middle Eastern cuisines with which we were familiar. The fesenjan, a pomegranate and walnut sauce that’s typically served with duck and chicken, was so good I ate it without the meat on a huge plate of basmati rice and purred like a kitten for the rest of the day. And the tah-deeg, the golden layer of crusty rice remaining at the bottom of the cooking pot, was both yummy and fun, sort of a grown-up rice krispie treat.
So try a cuisine you’ve never had or one you’re not too familiar with. If you go when it's not the height of the lunch or dinner rush, you may have time to engage your server and possibly even a cook or chef. When you’re ordering, ask, “What do you like?” or “What's your favorite thing on the menu?” Don't say, "You pick for me," because you may end up with the blandest thing they have.
My friend, Chuck, of Gumbo Pages fame, has a business card-sized guide he keeps in his wallet that’s helpful for ordering in ethnic restaurants. On it is the following sentence written in several languages: "I have a white face and a Chinese/Thai/Russian stomach"—you get the idea. This lets the server know he’s an adventurous eater. Chuck said that once when he handed this card to a server, the server took away the first "safe" menu and returned with a "real" one.
Consider this as a staycation option to the same ol’ same ol’. Who knows? Maybe this fall your kids will write an essay titled “What I Ate on Staycation.”