Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food - El Salvador versus Cuba

It has been a week since the election and so far so good. Nothing crazy has happened although some of the business community here are very pessimistic and are expecting El Salvador to follow the pattern of Ecuador, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Others are expecting this country to follow the example of Brazil and it is a good sign that President Elect Funes went to visit Lula first.

Okay, it is not my intention to make this into a political blog and I have been spending way too much time this week arguing politics at parties ... so let me talk about something else. I was trying to decide whether to write about dentistry in San Salvador or food ... and I think the latter may be more fun.

I came to El Salvador after 13 years living in Havana. Havana has a vibrant culture and, seemingly, a diverse and interesting cuisine. Think about all those great cocktails invented in Cuba (Mojitos, Cuba Libres, and Daiquiris).
Yoyi carving the pig in Yeya's kitchen
Think about Cuban sandwiches, roast whole pork cooked in a caja china, yucca con mojo, tostones and maraquitas, and fresh seafood. In reality, we ate a lot of cabbage (organic since the farmers didn't have the money for pesticides) and frozen chicken from the US (hormone enhanced giant chicken legs in 30 lb boxes with Russian writing on them) that fell off trucks.

We also had a lot of lobster tails (at a dollar per tail, it was cheaper than the imported hamburger) but there is only so much you can stand and with Fatima being allergic to it, I only cooked it when she was off island.
Too much lobster!

Vegetables were really lacking. Sometimes all you would find was cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, and fruit. I only found green beans once in 13 years! Cauliflower maybe 4 time. Napa maybe 6 times - and of course I bought ever head they had so that I could make kimchee.

Organic baby arugula salad in Cuba
The best produce we had was organic baby arugula that would cost a dollar for a giant plastic bag (until hurricane Wilma flooded the little farm in Miramar) and watercress.
So when I moved to El Salvador, I was blown away by all the great food and produce. Four kinds of lettuce, zucchini, radicchio, daikon, strawberries, fresh chili peppers, fennel, sweet corn ... YEAR ROUND! A lot of it comes from Guatemala where I think they have the climate at altitude to grow through every season. We also have some nice culinary surprises like fresh mozzarella and a nice salty crumbly local cheese we use like Feta.
Caprese on a stick with a balsamic dressing

The wines from Chile and Argentina are plentiful and very inexpensive - our house wine is an Undurraga that costs $3.60 a bottle. The meats are good although I have to confess that I buy most of that at Pricesmart so our beef is from the US and the fish is farm grown Tilapia.

A dinner party in Havana with tamales and tacos
When we cooked for a large dinner party in Cuba, we would have a general idea of what we wanted to make and then we would try to find it. Depending on the outcome of that, we would have to change or tailor what we could serve. We did a lot of Mexican with tortillas brought in from visits to El Salvador. Our chicken mole was pretty popular.

In San Salvador, I can get an idea from the Food Channel or off the Internet, find everything I need, and then make exactly what I wanted to.
Indian food dinner - butter chicken and homemade Nan

In the past year, that has meant such dinner parties like: Thai food with Jasmine rice, coconut milk curry, Pad Thai, and a green papaya salad; Indian food with a Goan grilled curry fish, butter chicken and home made Nan bread;

Hand-rolls with avocado, tomago and shrimp

Japanese sushi handrolls with tofu miso soup; and a lot of beef with great salads and veggies like green beans with butter, garlic and almonds.

We have a nice condo but unfortunately we don’t have a private garden for a barbecue. There is a common parkette and I am contemplating setting up something there but it is a bit inconvenient. So we usually barbecue at friend’s houses.

A lot of big two pound sirloins on the grill and we recently did a proper barbecue with brisket and pork, cooked for 8 hours with a lot of hickory smoke.
Pork and brisket in our improvised smoker
I am not much of an appetizer maker but I cooked for a friend's birthday party and she wanted some appetizers so we did pesto grilled chicken kebobs with grated manchego cheese, a nice caprese salad on a stick with local fresh mozzarella and a balsamic dip, and bacon wrapped figs with a mascarpone dip.


Bacon wrapped figs with mascarpone dip

I have also been lucky to find plenty of friends who love to eat and also one who is a professional chef. Minh, of Minh's Cuisine, is a Thai and Vietnamese chef and he is just awesome to cook with. I like cooking and think I am a decent "cook" but Minh is a "chef" and is teaching me a lot. We once did a rotisserie boneless leg of pork and someone thought it was a bit dry. He was carving and said we should make a sauce. A quick rummage through the cupboards produced two cans of pineapples - through the blender, then into a saucepan with two sticks of butter, a touch of ginger, a splash of soy sauce, and finished with some sliced green onions and we had a 4 minute sauce done.

Now the big question is, what are we making next weekend?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

We Have a Winner!

9:20 p.m. about 300 yards away from where I sit, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN is giving his acceptance speech in the Sheraton Hotel. Fatima thinks that the Arena candidate is probably giving his own speech ... but after a long night of vote counting, it appears that we have a clear winner.

No violence! Lots of language about how this is a young democracy. Lots of foreign scrutineers and a pretty clean process. Saw some shenanigans like a group of 10 Nicaraguans who were given fake ID cards and hats and T-shirts of the right wing Arena party - but they were caught pretty easily so were they paid by the left or the right?

The ballots were pretty basic - about 8 x 10" with only two choices given by their squarish coloured logo. Mark one or the other. In one case, someone put the "X" in the middle and there was an argument because it was touching the Frente symbol. In another case, someone in the countryside was so nervous about the party observers and international scrutineers ... that they panicked and put an "X" through the seal of the country. A vote for El Salvador!

Throughout the night, the cable channel has been periodically putting the Emergency Alert System on so that this one electoral official could stumble over reading number after number. They interrupted Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, The Unit, and now Bizarre Foods. Okay, what is this guy saying ... 8 million votes, 91% counted ... 48.76% for Arena and 51.27% for FMLN! Fireworks are going off outside and we have a socialist government coming into power in May!

After 20 years, there is a new government and we weren’t threatened by the US this time. They normally like to make noises about how El Salvador may not receive special treatment related to immigration issues and remittances if the communists take power. But there was a lot of noise from the American Embassy or maybe the State Dept about how other countries (i.e. Chavez’ Venezuela) shouldn’t stick their nose into another sovereign government’s election process. So I guess they felt bad about doing it themselves.

I can hear cheering from the Sheraton but otherwise, San Benito is very, very quiet. No surprise since this is a wealthy neighbourhood and I am sure most people voted for the right. We can see fireworks way off in the distance. The TV stations (which are controlled by right wing voting groups) are showing mostly boring speeches - the head of Arena for San Salvador is saying how divided the country is ... and he appears to be drunk. Not much news of how the city is taking these results so off to the streets!
Wow, there are hundreds of cars driving up and down Escalon and all over the side streets. Traffic is mostly blocked and thousands of people are gathering on foot, wearing red FMLN shirts and waving flags.
Traffic is crazy and it takes us about 10 cycles of a traffic light to cross through Escalon. I have never seen people this happy and emotional before.
Normally everyone is so reserved in public and they don't make eye contact or talk. Now people are waving at me as I take their picture (sorry for the quality - I really have to get a better camera) and kids are directing traffic while waving flags.
Cars make U-turns to either get closer to the celebration or to get farther away.
A guy is walking up the street with a big hand-lettered sign that says "Cual miedo?" which means "Which fear?"

Booom! Someone is throwing giant firecrackers (the illegal foot long ones called morteros) on the street and one went off very close to our car. We don't want to get caught in traffic for an hour so we head further and further down a side street until we can cut across Escalon. Cars are still flocking up the street to join the party and it is good to see the cops are all out - but they are staying in the vehicles and there seems to be no problems.

The TV channels are showing the concession speach by Rodrigo Avila (the donut fan) but nothing of the massive celebration going on in the street. That's too bad because on the TV and amongst my expat business friends the mood is dour and pessimistic. But the people have spoken and now they are celebrating in the streets. Their faces are shining and they look euphoric with so much hope for a better future.

Election Day!

I have so much to talk about that I am not sure where to start. I wish they had blogs in 1995 when I moved to Havana. At the time, I just sent out these very long "Letters from Havana" to friends by E-mail in which I noted all the bizarre things that happened to me and all the cultural ironies that I ran across. I stopped writing those when a friend of mine said that he would print out the letters and stash them in the can but that he was getting too far behind and was feeling guilty. So onwards and upwards!

Today is election day in San Salvador. Yesterday, the streets were quite calm although I saw various law enforcement guys throughout San Benito, the neigbourhood where I live. There was a group of 10 cops (male and female) in their quasi-paramilitary outfits on foot going through the Zona Rosa (entertainment district), there were two different types of cops in the parking lot of my local supermarket, and I heard a lot of helicopters out and about (there is a landing pad between our condo and the Hotel Sheraton one street over). I also saw two Japanese scrutineers with their credentials walking around - only a few of the thousands who have descended on the city to ensure these elections are fair.

Helicopters flying in the early morning mist on election day

I heard that the border with Guatemala has been closed - I thought for security purposes but I also heard it might be to prevent either party from bringing in fake voters.

Last night was pretty quiet since the Ley Seca came into effect, prohibiting the sale of alcohol for 24 hours on either side of the polls being opened. This meant that the many bars in our neighbourhood were closed and you could find parking! Of course the Super Selectos chose Friday to have a sale selling booze at cost! So to stock up, I got a bottle of Stoli Gold for $8, a Smirnoff Silver (for cocktails) for $6, and some Campari (for Red Square martinis - equal parts of cranberry, vodka, and Campari) for $10. Now isnt the point of the law to prevent people from getting boozed up and hitting the streets? Oddly, (or perhaps not), this same chain has similar sales before Christmas and Easter.

I am hearing what sounds like the drums of a marching band practicing off in the distance - it is 4:00 a.m.

As I mentioned before, I can see pros and cons to both sides running in this election. I have spoken to a lot of Salvadorans and the basic consensus is that the right wing ruling party has governed for almost 20 years and the rich have gotten richer while the poor haven’t been helped properly. One of my richer friends would refute this strongly and has pointed out all the public works the current government has done - building hospitals and roads. The amount of good that has been done is debatable but most people want to see some change, to let the left wing party take over to see what they can do. The left would be a shoo-in but for the fact that they have some old school rebel guerillas in their midst and there is some fear that they will assassinate their moderate leader and then go hog wild partying with Farc, Chavez and their old friend Fidel.
Wow, now I am hearing the roar of voices chanting along with the marching drums. Sounds like a war party getting their jones on.

The campaign was quite interesting. There were a lot of TV spots, most of them showing crowds walking behind their respective leaders with sweeping emotional music playing. And only a very few talked about the platforms - which were basically the same, i.e. encourage foreign investment, create jobs, help the poor. Instead of going door-to-door (which wouldn’t be very practical or safe in a country with a lot of walls, razor wire and armed guards), their supporters will take over a roundabout or a stretch of road and will fly their colours and give away car flags, stickers, plastic cups, brochures and stick notes emblazoned with their party or leader.

There has been some violence but little humour except for the giant billboards throughout the country. One party will put up a billboard as high as 60' off the ground and the other party would then carry up buckets of "mud" coloured paint to throw on the faces.

Who doesn't like donuts?
The funniest billboard has to be this one, in honour of the right wing candidate who used to be the head of the police and, while he did a good job, isn’t considered to be the sharpest guy around.

The polls are open and there is a feeling of anticipation. This could be a shining moment in the history of this country where the democratic voice of the people rises above fear mongering and prejudice ... or it could spiral out of control until we are reduced to a 10 second video clip on CNN showing police firing at masked prootestors with smoke hanging over this beautiful city. I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A New Life in El Salvador

A view of the city

After being a fan of numerous blogs, I've finally decided that I wasn't wasting enough time reading other people's writings and have decided to throw in my two cents. I am also interested in discussing what life is like in El Salvador for people interested in a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.
I think Mexico is pretty full up (especially for anyone interested in an ocean front property), Guatemala doesn't have the nicest beaches, Costa Rica is seeing the beginnings of a backlash against foreigners, Panama is very hot and humid, so I think El Salvador may be next in line. Very affordable property, great standard of living (especially after spending 13 years living in Cuba), all the comforts of home, very localized crime (unlike Guatemala City, for example), and great people.
The view from our apartment
So a bit about myself ... I am a Japanese born Korean, moved to Toronto when I was 3, went to school there and then moved to Havana in '95 for work, met a wonderful Salvadoran woman, started visiting El Salvador in '97, and decided to move here in September of 2007.
When I first came to SAL, things were smaller and quieter. Less rampant American commercialism and only Metrocentro and Gallerias (two big malls) were open and only one ATM in the entire country. Now we have BK's, McD's, Pizza Hut, and KFC everywhere ... along with Tony Roma's, Wendy's, Papa John's ... list goes on. Can't say it is the Yanks' fault since I think all of these franchises have been brought in by wealthy Salvadoran families/companies that want an easy way to make money (more on this later). Roads were good then (and even better now), prices quite a bit lower, crime was much better with fewer mara/gang deportees from the US living here (although still a lot of guns and matériel from the civil war being used inappropriately - like a grenade being thrown into a bank), and people had less money and were less familiar with the comsumer lifestyle of North America.
My son at Punta Roca
Visiting over the years, I have noticed more and more franchises, more big malls, and now thousands of ATMs everywhere. The middle class is growing - which bodes very well for this country - although poverty is still huge at 35%. The upper class is still making a lot of money and are more conspicuous in the Porsche Cayennes, Ferraris, and their helicopters. There are a lot more maquiladoras or maquilas (factories using cheap labour to manufacture or assemble for export) with many being in textiles.
How are things trending? A lot will depend on the election tomorrow. I am not for either party and can see the pros and cons of both. Regardless, this isn't my decision but one the Salvadoran people will make. I just hope it is fair with little violence.
So back to what I want to talk about in this blog. Can foreigners come here to find a new life? I read and occasionally contribute to the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel Forum and there seem to be various people who find themselves in this country - be it a long stay traveling through the region, or for work, with NGO's, church groups, or to retire. In my case, along with most of the expats I know living here, it came about due to a relationship with a Salvadoran, a few visits to this amazing country, and then the decision to move here full time. We have escaped the cold and the rat race of North America (and remember what Lily Tomlin used to say, even if you win the race, you're still a rat) and live in a country where many people leave from, risking danger to go illegally to the country which we easily left to make money for their family's survival. But we are fortunate to have savings or jobs that grant us a very good standard of living in a country with a low cost of living.
More on all these subjects later!