Saturday, January 13, 2007

Cuban food is the perfect beginning to a Scandinavian night...but I'm sure you already knew that.

As we were considering how to kick off a night full of Scandinavian culture, naturally we set our sights on a tasty Cuban meal! Picture above was taken at Versailles, a popular Cuban eatery in Los Angeles...

I recently ventured into LA to attend the 8th annual Scandinavian film festival. My friend Hae Jin and I counted down to the festival for weeks, in anticipation of good Scandinavian film and good food.

Technically, a drive to Los Angeles should take about 45 minutes, but realistically, it takes at least two hours to make the trek up there on a Friday afternoon. Despite the nightmare of LA traffic, I love exploring the city whenever I get the chance, and I always make it my business to find a delicious meal when I make the journey. As a self-described "culture vulture," Hae Jin is the perfect partner in crime to my culinary adventures!

Hae Jin and I studied in Denmark together at the DIS Copenhagen program in the spring of 2005. We both share a great love for Copenhagen and Danish culture, which is what leads us to quirky events like the Scandinavian film festival.

Many of our conversations revolve around travel, where we would like to go, and how we will get there and travel as much as possible despite being two people who are also driven by career goals and the need to achieve within conventional society. Out of everyone I know, she is probably the person with the most obsessive desire to travel. While I think of myself as quite the travel junkie, Hae Jin is something of an extreme inspiration: The girl would sleep on or in a box every night if it meant she could go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of adventure. Her most recent adventures include a post-graduation stint in Puerto Rico as well as a three-month job teaching English in Korea.

She is a person with friends spread out across the globe, and many of them seem to be bound by similar expatriate desires and travel escapades. One such friend, fellow blogspotter Cheryl, joined us for our pre-film festival dinner. Cheryl is finishing up her Master's in English Lit in Chicago, but was on a brief visit to California en route to Guam, where she grew up. Along with Cheryl came Hee Gyun, a Gaum- raised advertising professional turned LA resident.

We all knew each other through one friend, who knew the other friend, who knew the other friend, and 3/4 of us met while traveling internationally. As the foreign exchange craze continues, it seems like we are more likely to make friends while roaming the streets of Korea or Copenhagen than right in our own home towns. "It's hard to meet people in L.A.," Hae Jin always says. Personally, I think it's our wanderlust holding us back.

It was incredibly fun to experience a reunion of sorts with this random group of dinner companions. It was a dinner full of funny travel stories, laughter, and great food. It was nice to hear a few other people lamenting the tension between immediately choosing an established career and taking the dirt road path that is an expatriate traveler's existence.

Thank goodness we have so many culinary treasures throughout Southern California, to give us little cultural teasers and make us wonder about the possibility of the real thing, the actual destination. I really enjoyed eating the Cuban influenced offerings of Versailles, where I tried two scrumptious dishes this weekend.

Famous roasted chicken dish at Versailles: this dish is the favorite among regulars, and comes with rice, onions, a side of black beans, and plantains

Lechon Asado- Cuban style roasted pork with rice, plantains and onions
We all seemed to agree that the food at Versailles was satisfying and delicious. The conversation was just as good, and often hilarious. While I won't recreate it for the sake of The Great American Bakery Hunt, I will mention one comment made by Hae Jin, one that sums up our pursuit of culture, our love for adventure, and the reason why we are nomadic expatriate chums.
"When I'm out, I think of buying things in terms of plane tickets," Hae Jin said as she took another bite of the mouth watering chicken. "Would I rather buy 4 t-shirts, or put that towards a ticket to the Caribbean?"
My brother and I often discuss this philosophy about big purchases. With many of his late 20-something friends getting engaged, this topic has started to come up more than ever. Now, I might be stereotyping, but some people seem to place a lot of emphasis on flashy engagement rings. And this is something my brother and I do not understand.
Rather than buying expensive engagement rings, we feel that it is much more logical and reasonable to put that money towards a prolonged European residency, a tour in Japan, or whatever impossible sounding adventure might strike your personal fancy!
Why not choose a simple band and let your travels do the talking? (This is assuming, of course, that the people involved can afford either the ring or the international adventure. Just allow me this tangent and assume the correct variables are in place. Assume that the person is financially able to choose at least one, and obligated to choose one or the other: the ring, or the adventure.)
Would you rather have a ring, a hunk of precious metals sitting atop your finger, staring at you obnoxiously, reminding you of how you could have spent the money on an amazing tour of some fabulous destination? Taunting you each day, from your finger, from the bedside table, from your jewelry box, screaming regret every time it catches the sun? Or would you rather hop on a plane, say au revoir to the conventional, skip the humdrum jewelry fitting sessions, and live a life full of amazing culinary possibilities? Even if it were just one great trip, with one amazing meal, and with one charming bakery, it's worth it. Perhaps mainstream society deviates from this logical truth, but the Great American Bakery Hunt deems it so!
I can imagine it all now:
Puzzled onlooker: "Kristin, why are you wearing a ring pop?"
Me: "Why, it's my wedding ring. I get a new one every day actually. It's great for an after dinner snack. We buy them in bulk, you know. Smart and Final. A great place to get coffee filters too, as it turns out."
Perplexed debutante: "A ring pop? I don't understand.
Me: "I suspected as much. Symbolism my friends, symbolism."
And I would leave it at that.
Perhaps a ring pop is taking things too far, but I must prove my point. If anyone has the nerve to question it, you must feel sorry for them that you had the chance to "bathe off the southern coast of St. Barts with spider monkeys*" for example, and they didn't.
(*to quote the classic character Hansel--that's right, it's simply the most appropriate person to quote in this rant. Bloggers, I implore you: let's leave Shakespeare to the poets)
If you really feel intimidated, keep a laminated copy of your plane ticket in your purse/briefcase. If you find yourself surrounded by doubt, pull it out and try to remember that perfect meal, how your mouth watered, and know that you did things the right way. It's not that I don't appreciate beautiful things. It's just that I appreciate beautiful meals more.
Anyway, this is all besides the point. Back to our night at Versailles. While our conversation contained a lot of travel chatter, we did happen to take the time to form an opinion about the food as well. (I think that was the original intention of this post?)
Not only was it a tasty meal, but the portions at Versailles were very generous, and thank god! As I was driving home, I was stuck in traffic yet again and despite being stuffed after dinner, I felt a little "traffic hunger" coming on. (You've all been there: You're on the 405 freeway, at a standstill. The sun is in your eyes, but you don't give a damn, because "Teenage Wasteland" is on the radio, you're in the mood to karaoke, and you remember with great glee that you have some Poore Brothers Salt and Vinegar chips stashed in the backseat. Traffic hunger, the most primal of all desires, takes over, and The Who sound better than ever-- even the traffic becomes less of a painful ordeal.)
On the way back home from L.A., my wicked case of travel hunger was in full effect.
With no fork in site, I used my fingers to scoop up the remaining meat and rice, moaning in affirmation that each bite was just as good as the first time. I know that the chicken dish is the typical favorite, but for a pork-lover like myself, I knew I had made the right decision by ordering the lechon asado. My Volvo was full of the meal's distinctive aroma, so heavy and porky that I could have taken a bite right out of the air. I breathed in the sweet air with a sense of satisfaction.

Our feast at Versailles!

A night of Cuban and Scandinavian culture, all in one? Delicious!
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