Study Abroad and Cultural Tours Blog

New Orleans

A musician’s take on the Big Easy

by Mariano Cobo Iturbe, Contributing Blogger and Resident Musician

It’s eight o’clock in the morning. The weather is a bit grey and gloomy. I’ve landed in New Orleans and I’m at the footstep of one of the city’s most emblematic neighborhoods: the French Quarter. I expect that before me lies what’s going to be an experience every musician and music aficionado must live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I start my journey I’m immediately captivated by the architecture of the place. The houses are old, made of Wood, each with their own long balcony.  It’s a unique sort of style I’ve never before encountered. After a brisk walk I find myself at one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States and standing before two musicians playing popular songs on brass instruments. When one of them breaks into song I almost thought I was listening to the great Louis Armstrong himself. Soon after he smiles at me to go take a picture with him, without hesitation I give him his well-deserved tip. I find him hugely talented, and I find it strange he is playing in the street.

I move on a few more blocks and hear the dizzying solo of a clarinet. When I find where it’s coming from I see a parking spot. Passers-by crowd near hypnotized by the music. Cars can barely squeeze by, but it’s no matter. Music is the heart and soul of this city, and the drivers know that.  I‘m struck by the raw talent of the family’s youngest member and the dexterity with which he plays the drums is incredible.

the french quarterI hop on the street car to go to go for lunch at the renowned Willie Mae’s Scotch House to try some of the traditional food from the area, and I’m blown away by the truly succulent red beans. I’m so marveled by the neighborhood that I think I should come back to keep enjoying atmosphere so unique to this world.

I decide to visit the famous piano bar at Pat O’Briens where two musicians on two huge pianos take turns performing any song the crowd requests. It’s amazing. As if they are human karaoke machines. They know everything. I can’t help but scribble “Piano Man” on a napkin and pass it to one of them. He plays it as the whole crowd sings along to the tune.

New Orleans agosto 2012It has been a magnificent experience. All I want to do is stick my head in each and every bar on the street where they’re playing any and every kind on music your heart could desire. As I come to an intersection the music melds and creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously disconcerting and spectacular. Never had I experienced anything quite like it.

I finish my visit with a feeling of desire to return, of wanting to share my experience, of wanting to transmit to my colleagues in the music world what I saw and express to them how lucky I feel to have experienced it.

translated by Katalina C. Thomas

Mardi Gras:

get carried away by the celebration

If New Orleans is famous for one thing it would have to be its Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) celebration. Yet most see it as a bacchanal celebration for raucous college students, while it is in fact so much more.

New Orleans agosto 2012Fat Tuesday celebrates the final send off for our excesses before the religious period of Lent, observed by Catholics. Since many people who celebrate it give up things like meat, fatty foods, or alcohol during the 40 days of lent, the time leading up to it is fraught with excess. Independent from its religious origins, Mardi Gras has risen to a level of popularity on both national and international levels, because, really, who doesn’t love a good party?

file0002136400336Carnival is celebrated in many ways and in many places, from dancing in the street in Rio de Janeiro to masquerade balls in Venice. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is infamous for its debauchery and plastic beads, but the traditions surrounding it have far more breadth. Families wake up bright and early on parade days to claim their territory lining major thoroughfares like Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. They will camp out from the wee hours of the morning to make sure they have the perfect spot, and even take decorated ladders to get a head up on the crowd for catching the beads, doubloons, feather boas, and other prizes thrown from the floats.

Mardi Gras: King Cake With Hurricane Drinks BehindThroughout the day, whole families stake out their spots sending members to bring back provisions from the drive-thru daiquiri places, spicy fried chicken joints, or even better to pick up a world famous King Cake. The whole day is a celebration culminating in the parade. The music from the marching bands pipes up, and the floats begin to roll by.  Everything is bathed in a purple, green, and gold aura; no one could resist being carried away by the atmosphere.

Cooking Around the World:  


              Everyone feels creatively blocked every now and again. Whether it be in art, writing, sewing, or, in my case: cooking. I love spending my free time in the kitchen being creative, but when you have to get food on the table day in and day out I often find creativity the first thing to be left by the wayside. So one day I decided that the best way to force myself out of my rut was to take the list of countries of the world and cook a representative meal from one every week. My first country: Afghanistan. Exotic, right? Well, that’s the point.

                Afghan food holds as staples rice, barley, and other major crops cultivated in the region. It is a cuisine heavily influenced by halal Islamic dietary laws, and as one might expect, heavily spiced with things like cardamom and coriander. We chose a popular rice preparation called Challow and Kofta with Korma, aka meatballs and sauce.

afghanistan meal                As rice is a popular staple both in Afghanistan and our home I decided this would make a fitting  carb for the meal. While we often make rice in our home I was surprised by the process for making this rice. While we normally steam ours, Challow is boiled and then baked. It was a little laborious but fluffy and delicious. It also called for a tremendous amount of freshly ground cardamom, which seemed overpowering until combined with the main dish.

                To go with the rice we chose Kofta and Korma. These words might ring a bell for those of you familiar with Indian food, however the spice combination for these was unique and a perfect companion to the exotically spiced Challow. The intense tomato and paprika flavors really set the dish apart.

                This first experiment was a tremendous success overall! When you mix the Challow (rice) with the Korma (sauce) from the Kofta (meatballs), the balance works really well and the cardamom in the rice isn’t so overpowering. I might reduce the cardamom just a smidge on the rice (the recipe included below has been adjusted down some), and the extra work of boiling and baking the rice as opposed to steaming was probably unnecessary taste and texture-wise. Nonetheless, I would use this recipe for meatballs any day of the week. The plan forced me outside my comfort zone, and that was just what I was looking to do! I actually now regularly add whole cumin seeds to my long grain rice now thanks to trying it out with the Challow recipe.

Kofta and Korma

For Kofta:Afghanistan meatballs

1lb ground beef

1 medium onion, minced

2 cloves pressed garlic

1 egg

1T  coriander, ground

3tsp chicken broth powder
(this eliminates the need for salt)

ground black pepper to taste


                In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients. It is important to mix everything well so that the meatballs will be tender. Form into meatballs about golf ball sized. Next, set the meat aside while you make the Korma sauce.

For Korma:


EVOO to fill the bottom of a skillet

1 large onion chopped

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tbsp of chicken flavor bouillon powder in place of salt

1T sweet paprika

1T ground cumin

1T ground coriander


                For the Korma sauce heat the oil in a large pan (the meatballs should touch each other as little as possible in the pan). Caramelize the onions. In a separate bowl add 2 cups of water and tomato paste to mixing to dissolve then add spices. Add this to the onions, stir till mixed. Add the meatballs, making sure they do not touch, and then add more water until the meatballs are more than half covered.

                Set the pan to medium high and cover with a lid. Let cook for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and carefully flip meatballs. Stir gently and cover again leaving it slightly open so the steam can escape. Cook for 25 minutes more. Stir occasionally. Uncover and reduce until the sauce thickens.

                Total cook time is about one hour, you will know when the sauce has thickened; turn the meatballs as needed to prevent burning. Serve with white rice (Challow).



2 1/2 cups of Basmati rice


1T whole cumin seeds

3t salt

1T ground cardamom

6 cups of water


                About 30 minutes before you want to start, place Basmati in a bowl and cover with water. Wash rice and drain the water off, repeating 3 times or until the water is no longer cloudy. Once rinsed, fill the bowl with water, completely covering rice, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F

                In a large ovenproof pan with a good lid (we used our cast iron, add a good bit of water and sprinkle with salt. Bring the water to a strong boil, and drain the soaking water from the rice and then add the rice to the boiling water. Stir in well and then let it boil again for about 6 minutes – until the rice is more or less soft when you bite on a piece.

                Drain the rice in a colander or strainer, reserving 1/4 of a cup of hot water and dissolving 3 teaspoons of salt into the water. Add 1/4 of EVOO to the hot water mixing well. Add this to the rice until the top of the rice is just covered. Next add in the spices. With a bid spoon mix this into the rice by making little mounds of the rice and shaking the pan. Repeat until the whole pan of rice is mixed and covered with oil and the spices are well mixed with the rice.

                 Pile the rice into a mound in the middle and with the back of the spoon, in a circle pattern make 5 “holes” for ventilation in the mound (four around and one in the middle). Place the top on the skillet and place it in the oven for about a half hour. After 30 minutes turn the oven off and let it set for 20-30 minutes more to let the rice finish cooking. When you serve the rice first fluff it by taking a forkful and shaking it back into the pan, repeat until most of the grains of rice are separated.

by contributing blogger Katalina C. Thomas


Beer, Sausage, and Art

courtesy of morguefileIncomparably framed in picturesque surroundings at the foot of the Alps, we find the city of Munich. It is an old city in which we can find a mix of cultures reflected in the lifestyle of its citizens, its cuisine and its art.

When you arrive in Munich’s historic center you realize that it is a place where old and new fuse. The old is represented by the medieval arches and buildings of all architectural styles.  One of these emblematic sites is Marienplatz. It is a place full of life and beauty. Flanked by the monumental city hall in its Gothic Revival style, the square is the meeting point for all Münchners alike, and it is from here that we can reach all the other points of interest in the city.

The cultural offerings are very diverse in Munich. There are important art museums where we can find pieces from any movement in art history. But if you are looking for something truly representative of the city, it’s the beer. You can’t understand Bavarian life without its beer. Upon entering any beer hall you have the dilemma of deciding which beer to order, because, unless you’re unafraid of a serious hangover, you’ll never come close to tasting them all.  For the thirstiest of travelers there are traditional taverns where tray after tray of gigantic steins filled to the brim with beer endlessly circulate to the tune of traditional music.

courtesy of morguefileNothing is better than joining in for a little polka to stave off the effects of the oversized beers, although another way would be to try their traditional sausages and pretzels. Any time is great to enjoy one; sold at all hours the delicious sausages can be purchased from any number of street vendors.

Munich breathes the life of its streets. Thanks to the mild climate, at any time of year people can meander through the local open air markets, which offer truly appetizing farm to table fare, and, of course, take advantage of the great weather to sip a beer at any of the many Biergartens.

With all Munich has to offer all that’s left is to head over for Oktoberfest: the most important festival dedicated to beer in the world celebrated every September.  Anyone want to join us?

The Epiphany

Extend Your Holiday Season the Spanish Way

23660_517987252850_907642_nEvery sixth of January the Christmas holidays come to a close with the feast of the Epiphany. While in American culture this holiday is essentially nonexistent save as a religious observation, in many other countries it is indeed the trademark of the season. In Spain, it is celebrated as the feast of the Three Kings, and it is of central importance in their festivities.

On this day the arrival of the Three Wise Men to the city of Bethlehem is celebrated. They came from the Orient offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Christ child, and in like fashion this is the day in Spain and many other countries when gifts are exchanged. The holiday is based on the enigmatic characters of the Magi who have little basis in the Bible itself. Regardless of what little we know of them, popular tradition has allowed these characters, like Santa Claus, to grow to be loved across the globe.  Tradition tells us their names were Melchior, Gaspar y Balthazar, and that they represent the three ages of human life. Melchior is an elderly man, while Gaspar is middle aged, and Balthazar a young man; although other theories postulate that they represent different ethnicities.

23660_517987242870_531093_nThe night of the fifth of January is held to be the most magical night of the year in Spanish culture. These Magi mysteriously sneak into homes unseen and leave gifts for the children. The gifts, of course, are the exact ones requested in the letters the kids had written. The correspondence is sent throughout the month of December via the Kings’ pages (assistants), who can be found at local shopping centers and town squares so that each may receive their desired gifts.

There is only one moment in which the royal majesties allow themselves to be seen: the parade. On the eve of the feast there is the most magical of parades where each of the wise men presides over their own float. Young and old alike flock to line the streets in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Three Kings and grabbing candies thrown from the floats. They also call out one last reminder of their wishes, just in case the card got lost in the mail. That night the children must go to bed early for the Magi to come, though it is perhaps the night in which they sleep least, nervous and excited about the surprises awaiting them the following morning, praying that it not be the dreaded coal!

At last the moment has arrived! Upon waking the children run to the living room still bleary eyed and rush to open their presents.  If they have been good the Three Kings have been generous, and if not too, but they might find a piece of coal mixed in with their gifts though not a charcoal barbeque briquette, an edible delicacy to suit their sweet tooth.

king cakeAfter opening gifts, families enjoy a traditional king’s cake: el Roscón de Reyes. This sweet bread in the shape of a ring symbolizing a crown is topped with candied fruit, almond slices, and pearl sugar. Usually you will find them sliced in half and filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, chocolate cream, or angel’s hair made from the sweetened threads of the Siam pumpkin. The pastry makers hide a figurine in the cakes along with a giant dried bean. The figurine bestows luck on he who finds it and the bean indicates who must pay for the cake! Today many bakeries hide money or even airline tickets in their cakes to attract more people to buy them.

Next year extend your holiday season a little longer and try celebrating the Epiphany the Spanish way. Keep an eye out for a traditional Roscón de Reyes cake recipe coming up on our blog. Or dream big and plan a trip with us to Spain to spend the most magical night of the year watching the Parade of the Three Kings; who knows, maybe they will bring you what your heart desires.


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