Baklava is not always made with honey, chocolate-sauce desserts are not always sweet, and tapioca balls are a quirky way to liven up a fruit smoothie.
One good way to learn about food, especially ethnic items, is to head to Chicago for a Neighborhood Sampling tour.
That’s how I spent about five hours on a recent Saturday, in a bus with about 40 good-natured strangers who all seemed to love food and crave more than meat and potatoes.
We made three stops: Rudy’s Taste, a new Guatemalan restaurant on Ashland Avenue in West Town; Furama, a Chinese eatery on Broadway in the Argyle/Uptown area; and Jaafer Sweets, a Middle Eastern bakery on Kedzie in Albany Park.
All three are family-operated enterprises in ethnic neighborhoods that are slowly losing their character because of condominium developments, notes tour guide Evelyn Thompson, a Chicago native and longtime ethnic food consultant there.
She begins with a historical perspective of these areas as the tour bus rolls out of Chicago’s Loop, and her commentary eventually shifts to the ethnic origins of foods and flavors, avocados to peanuts.
It is a perfect way for the curious, the timid and the unacquainted to explore the big city beyond its well-known Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue. This type of neighborhood tour has been offered for four years; there are different stops almost every time.
At Rudy’s Taste, we learn that tamales wrapped in plantain leaves have a different taste and texture than those wrapped in corn husks. The plantain, which looks like a banana, is used like a starch unless it is ripe. That’s when it becomes a dessert; our version of it also has black beans and a no-sugar chocolate.
The tamales are made by hand as we wait. The samples, which also include tortillas with beans and vegetables, are not as spicy as we expect. We wash it all down with a lime-pineapple juice and, later, a shot of atol de elote, corn puree and cinnamon. It’s sweet, thick and warm.
Dozens of customers are eating dim sum when we arrive at Furama, a huge Mandarin and Cantonese restaurant that used to be a car dealership. It looks like one big Asian tapas bar, with small servings of many things.
Each dining table has a lazy susan that is topped with small platters and food warmers, each containing bite-sized servings of different things. The foods are steamed, fried, accompanied by noodles, filled with meat, seafood or vegetables. There are dumplings and doughy buns. Some are sweet, some spicy, some bland.
Furama has more than 100 types of dim sum items; we probably taste a dozen. For more, go to www.furamachicago.com.
On the way out, I try a strawberry freeze – a smoothie – with tapioca balls, gummy little black spheres that will zoom up a fat drinking straw and into your mouth. They’re not nutritious, not full of flavor, not offensive – simply a novelty, particularly when ordering a “bubble tea” of cold tea, milk and sugar.
Our last stop takes us many miles, culturally, in another direction. Baklava is the specialty at Jaafer Sweets, and there are many ways to buy the sweetened phyllo dough.
The delicate pastry is shaped like cigars, squares, half-moons, birds’ nests. There are almond, cashew and pistachio fillings – some versions chunky, others paste-like. Cream cheese may be used, or a sugary syrup.
There are other types of pastries as well, and too many to taste, so some of us are glad to see that sampler boxes can be purchased. For more about the bakery, go to www.jaafer.com.
The next “Neighborhood Sampling” tour, in June, is full. Others will be Aug. 14 and Nov. 6; stops are not chosen until about a month before the tour. The cost is $50, which includes food samples. It is not recommended for children because of the tour’s length, and commentary is prepared for an adult audience. Customized tours for groups of 40 also can be arranged.
The Chicago Office of Tourism arranges more than 50 neighborhood, specialty and cultural history tours each year. The tours usually are half-day ventures that cost $25 to $50, often with discounts for senior citizens and students.
Visitors can explore an ethnic neighborhood or the city’s cemeteries, concentrate on one incident in history (like the Great Chicago Fire) or one type of art (public murals, theaters, famous authors).
All tours begin at the Chicago Cultural Center, at Randolph and Michigan, which is a quick bus or cab ride from the Metra train stations downtown, via Washington Avenue. That means you can park the car for $1 in Kenosha or Harvard, Ill., and take the train instead of dealing with traffic and parking fees; go to www.metrarail.com or call (312) 322-6774 for details.
For more about the tours, go to www.chicagoneighborhoodtours.com or call (312) 742-1190.
If your prefer to explore ethnic and other fresh food markets at your own pace, consider “A Cook’s Guide to Chicago: Where to Find Everything You Need and a Lot of Things You Didn’t Know You Did” by Marilyn Pocius ($15, Lake Claremont Press).
The author recently led an elaborate and unusual breakfast, as a part of the city’s spring Culinary Immersion Weekend, in which participants help prepare some of their meals, as well as eat them.
Pocius’ breakfast buffet was an eclectic ethnic masterpiece, from the jasmine rice soup with shrimp, to the potato and chorizo (hot Mexican sausage) hash.
“Spend the day in a foreign country without leaving town,” she writes. “Shop, gawk, eat and learn a little of the language without spending much money.”
Her book has maps and neighborhood/business descriptions. This summer, I’ll head to Devon Avenue, where many components of Chicago’s international marketplace are located. It is yet another one of the city’s neighborhood tours.
If you’re in the mood for cooking while in Chicago, consider a $30 “World Kitchen” class at the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph St. Each of the Thursday night and Saturday classes is $30; go to www.gallery37.org or call (312) 742-TIXS to learn more.
Many types of art classes also are offered at this nonprofit division of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.