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Travel Files: Chilling Out in Bali and Northern Sri Lanka; Istanbul in 1839

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Winter hazel in bloom after a night of spring rain: One of the pleasures of coming home.

I flew in last night, exhausted after a week of travel. Before I went to bed, it rained hard and there were violent flashes of lightning on the other side of the field.

This morning I awoke to a wet garden in glorious bloom. The winter hazel’s pale yellow blossoms dangled like ruffled bells against the dark woods.

The redbud, which has not been especially happy the last few years….

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… is bejeweled with purplish flowers that glitter like gems with drops of rain clinging to their petals.

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Even the pup’s little plum tree is sprouting soft blossoms perched like butterflies on its skinny branches. Next year it may be as beautiful as the others.

As much as I love coming home, I also adore the way I get to read alot while traveling. It’s the perfect escape, especially if you’re stuck in a dreary corner of the world. This time I stumbled across a host of destinations, both real and imagined, to add to my travel file.

Here are some favorites:

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Elle Decor’s World of Style issue (April 2012) includes a yummy travel feature on Bali. This magical island has changed in in some ways (and some ways not) since I was there years ago. There are many more luxury resorts and chill-out lounges, but Bali’s rich handicraft tradition still thrives, though with an increasingly European sense of design. At Chandi in Seminyak, “cocktails are spiced with chili and ginger; and there’s an extensive selection of sates (seafood and meats grilled on skewers) served with tasty sambals (mango and chili based dipping sauces).” I remember banana leaf offerings on every stairway and even today, “villagers still stroll along Amandari’s stone walkways, in view of terraced rice paddies, to reach the temple on the property.” Definitely time for a return visit, I think.

The same issue, unfortunately not yet on-line, also features Daniel Bouloud’s recipe for Lamb Rekha, a green curry which would make a delicious change from the usual Easter leg of lamb. Based on an Indian recipe from the mother of the head sommelier at Restaurant Daniel, the curry is spiced with ginger, coriander, cumin, Indian black salt, dried mango powder, cayenne pepper and garam masala, and gets its fresh color from spinach puree and cilantro. All you need is a mango lassi to start and Julie Sahni’s saffron almond pudding for dessert, and you’re on your way.

And if Marrakech is on your list, you might like “A Desert Romance” with photos of the home and guest house of Maryam Montague, who writes a popular blog about her family’s life in Morocco.

One of the pleasures of travel is finding newpapers I don’t ordinarily get to read. Yesterday I was so mesmerized by an article on Sri Lanka in London’s Financial Times that I almost missed my flight home. Hmmm, I wonder why I didn’t…

Well, anyway: In “War-torn beauty,” Carole Cadwalladr touts the low-key pleasures of northern Sri Lanka after the rout of the Tamil Tigers. At the eco-chic Bar Reef Resort, you sleep in “simple ‘rooms’ built out of wood and palm fronds with open-air beds lit by oil lamps at night,” and “eat …home-cooked curries communally on [your] knees in the central gazebo with the other guests” who are likely to include a celebrity or two as this is “the secret place for those in the know.” Offshore the water “teems with fish and thousands of leaping dolphins.” But hurry: “Foreign investors and corporate chains are gathering at the borders…”

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For a more urban jaunt, there’s always Singapore where you could do nothing but eat for a week. In “A Taste of Singapore’s Melting Pot,” Nicholas Lander samples the spicy Portuguese-influenced Eurasian cooking at Quentin’s where Kristang beef stew “a soup like dish…full of cabbage and carrots” is “enlivened by large pieces of cinnamon bark, star anise, cloves and pepper.” After a stop at Tai Wah Pork Noodle, a hawker stall, for the city’s best pork noodle soup, he goes to Annam, a new Vietnamese restaurant where his repast includes “grilled chicken with sticky rice cakes and a dipping sauce of finely grated lime skin” and to Wild Rocket for modern Singaporean dishes like “fried chicken wings stuffed with rice and water chestnut” and “a timbale of duck confit with yam cake.”

Do you love or hate cilantro? It doesn’t much matter, because either way you’ll enjoy the ride with Mei Chin’s article, “I Feared You, Cilantro and Now I Love You Too Much” on Gilt Taste. Chin, who has written for Saveur, Gourmet, The New York Times and Vogue, chronicles the sudden change in appetites that occurred when her hatred of cilantro suddenly turned into obsessive love.

I especially like the way her father used to deny that the ubiquitous herb was in any of the dishes her mother prepared, even when its “snowflake” leaves, “nodding on pale jade stems” were “feathered onto roast duck and braised pig belly,…threaded in with cool, slippery jellyfish salads, and…[stuffed] inside shrimp wontons.” “For nearly 20 years I regarded it as the most evil taste in the world.” But then: “Suddenly one morning I awoke longing to cram fistfuls of the stuff, fresh, into my mouth.”

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But maybe the present is too much with us–so how about an armchair trip to the exotic past? If you’re a lover of detective fiction, I recommend An Evil Eye, the fourth in a series of Istanbul crime novels by historian Jason Goodwin. Set in 1839 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, it is the most recent tale of Yashim, a eunuch-investigator who, as usual, must solve a series of nasty but highly inventive murders.

Goodwin’s talent is to make you feel as if you’re walking the streets (or penetrating the forbidden harem) of this glamorous but decaying city, which is slowly collapsing after the death of Sultan Mahmut II. But equally if not more alluring are the moments that Yashim spends in his kitchen making wondrous dishes to share with his friend Palewski, the very literate and impoverished Polish ambassador.

The preparation of these dishes is so detailed that you could fix any one of them simply by following the text. Well, almost. I would love to make the stuffed mackerel if only I could figure out exactly how “to empty the skin, squeezing the flesh and the bones through the tiny openings”—and frankly where the tiny openings come from in the first place. The flesh is cooked with shallots, currants, dried apricots and a blend of cinnamon, allspice, cloves and kirmizi biber, or “black charred chili flakes,” then stuffed back into the skin of the mackerel and grilled over hot coals. (pages 54-55)

There are other dishes as well, including a divine muhammara (page 162) made of pounded walnuts, pomegranate syrup, toasted cumin seed, olive oil and kirmizi biber. A couple of simple recipes can be found on Goodwin’s blog, The Bellini Card, as well as a description of the way to make Kakavia, the Greek fishermen’s stew with cooked tomatoes that appears on page 35 of An Evil Eye.

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