Giving Milan a second chance

Why so quiet on the blog, you ask? We're in Italy! I always forget about how different the pace of life is here, and we felt it as soon as we got off of the plane. Italy hadn't even been on our itinerary, but a series of coincidences led us back. Back in March we met Francesco, an Italian who was visiting Pun Pun in Thailand at the same time we were. We chatted over all of our meals and found we had a lot of ideals and interests in common, and eventually he said, “You need to come and visit me, see our family farm and cook with my mom!” We thought about it for a couple of weeks. By the time we needed to plan the next leg of the trip we knew we wanted to mostly skip sights for a bit (I felt like if I saw another temple/wat/church/castle/fort/whatever I was going to curl up into a fetal position) and just focus on visiting people, talking to them about their projects, and eating. Italy actually seemed perfect because we've visited the so-called “major tourist draws” already so we didn't feel like we were going to miss out. So we emailed him and said, ok, when should we come? We didn't want to pass up a chance to visit Francesco and see his farm. We thought we'd also drop in and visit Peter, a baker that Wayne used to work with who had been living in Milan for about a year and a half. So here we were, back in Italy.

We had a few days on our own before meeting up with Francesco and we weren't exactly sure where we needed to be. I hadn't really explored the northern part of Italy much while I lived in Florence ten years ago; I think I was too much in love with Tuscany at the time to even give the north the time of day. The impression of Milan the one time I did visit was that it was a big city, grey and grimy, not someplace I'd want to visit again. But we didn't want to stray far and we were flying into Milan so we decided to give it a second chance, just wander around and get a sense of its character.

And it was a totally different experience. This time Milan seemed like such a vibrant city, people were out on the streets walking and biking and having animated conversations. The center of town is so easily walkable and there's an abundance of public transportation options, from the metro to the tram to the bus. And even for a city that has a reputation for being the most uptight, Milan seemed so laid back to us. Almost every bar worth its salt had aperitivi (snacks laid out buffet style eaten with wine between 6 and 8 pm), so tables full of people spilled out onto the sidewalks everywhere we went. Don't get me wrong, Milan is not some backwater place – I've never seen so many Porsches before and everyone is so dressed up – but it just had a more laid back pace than any city we'd been in the past month or so.

We serendipitously found a local saturday market close to our hotel and admired the mountains of fresh produce from all over Italy. People jostled each other for the vendors' attention and a shot at the best produce. We followed their lead and picked up some salame, prosciutto, cheese, olives, bread, cherries and peaches for a picnic. We headed over to a park, grabbed a bottle of wine on the way and commandeered a bench. It couldn't have been more perfect, each thing we ate was like the Platonic ideal of that thing. Mamma mia! Literally I thought I had never really eaten a white peach before until that moment, and the salame was intensely meaty and delicious. The quality of food here always amazes me, and also that it's so affordable compared to what you would pay in the States. The people and dog watching was quite excellent too, we were quite fascinated by the lengthy conversations that Italians would have with the Senegalese street vendors that constantly bother people with random trinkets.

Our schedule ended up working out quite well with Peter's so we had a chance to stay with him for a few days and had a fabulous time eating and talking. He's been in Milan for about a year and a half so we got the scoop on some good places to go. We made a day trip to the beach at Finale Ligure and ate at a local pescheria (fish restaurant) – I had an unusual dish of anchovies in a green parsley sauce with argula and apples topped with some kind of caramel sauce. We waited patiently in line together at Luini for some panzerroti, basically a small calzone that uses a slightly different dough and that's fried. We also checked out Peck, a sort of high end gastronomic grocery store (think Citarella's but a hundred times more formal, fancy and expansive). We definitely got the sense that the Milanese are just as seriously obsessed and particular about their food as anywhere else in Italy. And of course we were thrilled that we got a chance to make dinner at Peter's house, we've been missing the kitchen so much. Well, to be honest it was mostly Wayne because I had an apertivo of Aperol and something else and was sort of out of commission (whatever! It was delicious and why don't Americans drink cocktails like that more often??), but either way we jumped at a chance to cook a meal at home.

I think Milan, for me, was so different for a number of reasons. Perhaps the city itself has changed in the past ten years. I know for sure that the Duomo had been scrubbed clean – it's glowingly pink now, whereas it was grimy gray the last time I saw it. Of course contextually everything just seemed so convenient and easy after Beijing, I can speak the language and know the basics of how things work (or don't work). Knowing someone who lives in Milan who could give us advice made a big difference in how we interacted with the city too. And what about age? What I look for and appreciate in a city is probably a bit different than what I was looking for ten years ago, now having been to so many other places. All in all our time in Milan couldn't have been more enjoyable and we were more than ready to jump into the Italian pace of life.

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Comfort in Seoul

Backtracking a bit, we can't forget to talk about Seoul. In our original itinerary, we weren't even going to hit Seoul. But once our friend Bremelin got wind of our travel plans, she insisted that we come visit. We were so glad that we had someone who knew the city and people well because it colored our experience so much, as the social aspect is so important to Korean food. When you go out, you're with a group of your coworkers or friends, or else you're with your whole family. It's about eating together and enjoying life. So we counted ourselves lucky that we were able to share our meals in Seoul with so many different people – I don't think our perception of Seoul would have been the same had it just been me and Wayne.

Of course the first thing we did was hit a BBQ joint with Bremelin. If you've never been for Korean BBQ, here's the deal: you sit around a table that has a grill in the center. Ideally the place you've chosen uses real charcoal and not that gas shit. They drop the charcoal into the center and drop a huge vacuum tube over it to suck up the smoke. You order some cuts of meat (usually pork; beef is available but is rather expensive), and they bring it out raw and you stick it onto the grill. While you're waiting, they bring out little plates of pickles and other salty nibbly things. As it's cooking, you cut up the meat with scissors and dish it out. You roll the meat into a piece of lettuce or sesame leaf, some salty bean paste, raw garlic, and super hot peppers. Stuff it in your mouth, repeat. It was delicious. We've gone for Korean BBQ numerous times in NY, but it didn't compare to what we had in Seoul. The pork just tasted so rich and fatty, and the charcoal just gave it that smoky flavor that you can't get from gas. And of course downing soju with a friend completed the experience.

Believe it or not, Korean food is not all about meat. (My waistline would tend to disagree though.) Kihwa, a friend of Bremelin's, took us to a place called Sanchon in the Insadong district. It specializes in vegetarian temple cooking, and has a very refined, beautiful and traditional atmosphere. There's a set menu for both lunch and dinner but there's not much difference, apparently there is a show at night. It's some of the most beautiful food that we've encountered on this trip; each dish had its own set of flavors, textures and colors. Together it was a perfectly composed meal that would  beat the pants off of all the vegetarian places and rate with any top restaurant in New York.

Knowing that we love food, Bremelin got in touch with Daniel Gray, a blogger who specializes in Korean food and runs culinary tours around Seoul. We hit up a traditional market and  poked around some stalls. The lady with the huge of amounts of pickled vegetables was quite sweet and offered us a million samples. We ogled all the different street foods, from pajeon (scallion pancakes) to soup with lots of offal. Many of the customers come here because they get nostalgic about the food they used to eat when they were young; the crowd tended to be older. We finally settled on trying soondae (Korean blood sausage) and something similar to head cheese. It definitely tastes much better than it smells. We also got our first taste of makgeolli, a rice-based alcoholic beverage that has a milky, smooth texture and has a low enough alcohol level that I can drink more than one glass.

Fortunately for us Dan invited some of his friends along, because Korean food is very much about socializing and drinking! We got acquainted over some more Korean BBQ and soju/beer/Coke shots (I had ONE thank you very much), and then made our way over to a bar. We ordered some green makgeolli (green from mulberry leaves), fresh tofu and kimchi. Fresh tofu and kimchi is the best bar food ever, and makgeolli is my new favorite alcoholic beverage. We ended the night with more soju and a rich seafood soup in one of the informal restaurants that sets up on the street. I definitely recommend a tour with Dan because you'll get to try all kinds of food at great places that you'd never be able to find on your own.

We didn't get sick of Korean food, but we also had some excellent Western style food while we were in Seoul. Bremelin's friend, Kihwa, owns a lovely multistory cafe in downtown Seoul called T42 that specializes in tea. Each floor has its own character, and the tea is very high quality. We happily found ourselves in the cafe numerous times, sipping tea and enjoying scones, cookies and other yummy baked goods. I think the most rich item was the Honey Loaf, basically a third of a pullman loaf topped with butter, cream, honey and a scoop of vanilla ice cream served warm. It was like french toast meets bread pudding times five servings. To top it off, we ate the Honey Loaf while we attended a beautiful concert on the top floor of the cafe because Kihwa's also a talented and accomplished harpist! We also had the chance to have some pizza at Kihwa's friend's place called Blacksmith Pizza. He made all the furniture and interior fittings himself (he's a blacksmith), and it has a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. We devoured the pizza, which was thin-crust italian style. It's been months since we've eaten any pizza and we haven't really craved it, but that day we were so glad to eat something familiar in such a friendly place. 

For me, Korean food is about comfort and familiarity. Kihwa and her friend took us to one of the most famous places in Seoul for samgyetang (a soup/stew made from a whole chicken stuffed with rice stuffing and ginseng). It was like pure essence of chicken, it made me think of cozy sweaters and fireplaces and a warm kitchen in winter. Brem took us to a lovely little place in her neighborhood (owned by a Mr. Kim) for bibimbap, pork belly and Korean pancakes. Everything was delicious, but I loved the atmosphere the most. It seemed like people from just down the block took their family out for dinner, and all the kids and grandparents were there sharing the meal and relaxing. For the week we were in Seoul, we found that we had a home away from home.

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Shanghai with no expectations, Part One.

It’s not often one gets a chance to stay in a Tibetan home-stay on the Northwestern edge of Sichaun Province in the Wild West of China. It’s even less often that you then travel across country by train and sleeper car by way of a two days of travel and land in a luxurious “serviced” apartment of someone you’ve only heard about and emailed with, but apparently that is what is possible in this day and age of internet and meeting up with friends of friends. It’s made us realize just how small this world truly is, where a couple from Brooklyn, NY, can travel nearly around the world hosted by a diverse crowd of welcoming strangers.

So, into Shanghai we arrived with little expectations. Sure, some had told us it was too shih-shih and others had labeled it boring. But, after traveling through Hong Kong and Singapore, we figured we should give one of the most important port cities in modern history a chance.

While we were staying with Tracie’s Aunt’s friends in Hong Kong, they mentioned their mutual friend Rose that we should try to meet up with if we had a chance in Shanghai. King said, “..Rose is kind of a foodie…she knows a lot of great places and is always the one I call up when I have questions about where to eat…I think you’ll like Rose…”  We put her in the back of the mind and headed for Southwest China. Our mission was China and Food with a capital F. Sichuan treated us well and when we headed back East we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Before landing in Shanghai, we spoke with Rose only once. We said, “Hi Rose, yea, this is Wayne and Tracie and we’re leaving Jiuzhaigou today and we hope to arrive in Shanghai in two days.” She said, Oh, ok, well you have my cell, call me when you get into Shanghai and I’ll email you all the information for how to get to my place.

We took a flight out of Jiuzhaigou, one of the smallest airports I would expect fromChina and landed in Xi’an. We hopped on a bus from the airport to the main rail station and haggled with the masses and managed ourselves some soft-seat sleepers on the overnight to Shanghai. Way easier than last time. We knew what to do: we wrote down the Chinese characters for everything and when pronunciation failed the flash of the ol’ script got us on our merry way. Well, not exactly, we had to linger around for 3 and a half hours for our next train, so we wandered around the station (loaded with our bags) and finally found a place to eat. It was ok, nothing compared to food in Sichuan and we marched back to the station, dodging a few pick-pockets here and there and settled into a cozy soft-seat waiting area.

As an aside to my aside, I’m sitting on a nice train blazing through Japan, on a bullet train. I mention this because one of the things we’ve learned in our travels is whenever you can upgrade or find a way to travel in a better class it is always worth it.

Our ride from Xi’an was one of the more interesting of the trip. We found our soft seat sleeper seats and waiting for us on the lower bunk of our companion seats was a dapper looking older Chinese guy, had to be in his late seventies. He was relaxing, shoes off, black-satin-socked feet gently crossed and half-dangling off the mattress. His grin met my Nei Ho Ma? And we were on our way.

Getting into the car, not only had I spied the old man relaxing, but I’d noticed a 2/3’rds empty bottle of white liquid, the label was in Chinese, so I couldn’t make it out. Probably some rice wine I murmured to myself. Indeed it was. After some initial warming up and friendly conversation, him trying to figure out what we were saying, he slapped down the cap to his tea bottle – the ubiquitous Chinese warm tea bottles that are all over the country. He then leaned over, as the bottle was near my side and nabbed the bottle and filled the cap to brimming and pushed in my direction. “Uh..oh…it’s begun…” I though to myself and then murmured to Tracie.

About five shots and bags of fiery peanuts later, a new younger gentleman joined our cabin and the evening set down beside us as we eased on into a gentle overnight haul across the continent. We only awoke to a late night crashing about as the old gent moved on and a new one settled all of his accoutrement in. We crushed back into sleep only to be torn awake from the mad slumbering snores of our new neighbor and managed to drift off for the last remaining hours of darkness.

We awoke in the morning to some polite conversation with our bear of a sleeper and the younger quiet  one we’d met the day before. He had shared that he knew a little English and helped the way before our snooze with smoothing over our wretched attempts at Mandarin with the old guy and spent the better part of the day chatting away. He treated us to a large, yet mediocre meal in the train car later in the day (he apologized himself for the substandard state of affairs) and then said goodbye a few stops later.

After that we were on our own until we arrived in a mess from western China. An overnight train away left us dreadfully unprepared for our arrival. We smelled. Not only had we just been on a train for two days with no shower, but in the Tibetan homestay it was really cold, so showering wasn’t exactly on the priority list there, nor was washing the clothes. We needed both.

A few hours later, showered and changed into our cleanest clothes, we met Rose for the first time. We settled down for a bit and chatted about our dreams, our hopes and our travels and she told us about a house guest she’d recently had through and that we’d just missed her. Her name was Fuschia and she even had brought some cheese from England with her.

Stop. We were like, wait a minute. Did you just say Fuschia? Is her last name Dunlop? “Yea, why do you know Fuschia?” No, but we’ve read her book. Her book was such an inspiration for coming to eat in China and to think, we just missed her. How funny, how small this world is of ours.

So, we sat down to some Stilton from Neal’s Yard and some Yak milk cheese (which was reminiscent of Parmesan) by way of an English writer and cook in Shanghai, China. We knew right then and there, that we’d really lucked out in meeting Rose. After sharing the cheese and other snacks we all headed out for dinner. Rose had plans, but still managed to walk us around a bit and show us some of the places nearby. She left us to take our pick.

The next day, we woke a bit later and she was already out for work, but the night before she’d shared some of her favorite places to go for lunch and a suggested a couple of “sieu long bau” places downtown. For breakfast, we headed right downstairs where every morning there was a plethora of nice french pastries, Chinese pastries, cereal, yogurt, fruit and as much espresso as we could drink. Holy God! Thank you! We had tea for nearly a month and it was getting old. Every time we tried some other snack drink or breakfast drink they were disgustingly sweet and indeterminate of origin, so our love affair with coffee resumed.

We wandered around Shanghai that first day at a leisurely pace. The weather was a bit rainy and we were a little sad to see rain here as well after being in the cloudy city of Chengdu and then Northern Sichuan for so long. We wandered over to the Shanghai Museum, which to our surprise and delight was free. There we saw many wonderful exhibits, surprisingly one of our favorites was about “ethnic-dress”. There were beautiful handmade cloths and masks, knives and then on another floor we wandered through furniture from the Qing and Ming dynasties.

For lunch we went to Jia Jia Tang Bau (I think the literal translation is: Excellent Family Soup Dumplings). There we started with an order of steamed Pork and Chicken dumplings (12 per order) and individual bowls of soup. The soup was a light chicken broth with a fine julienne of seaweed and egg crepe. A light and refreshing start to a surprisingly delicate week of food. Despite contributing to our not so delicate weight gain, Shanghai is something more refined than the rest of China. I wouldn’t say snobby as some would, but it is where elegance never seemed to leave China.

The dumplings were so good we ordered another set, this time a crab roe and pork, which was a nice take on surf and turf, but our favorite was the pork and chicken. If you go, make sure you order the ginger and vinegar on the side. When you drape a few strands of the ginger, lightly painting the dumpling with vinegar you get a balanced explosion you’ll never forget.

Just across the street, literally, right across the street Rose had mentioned were the pan-fried version of Soup dumplings. I said to Tracie “Let’s just go take a look and see how they are…” Four more dumplings later, and these were twice as large as the steamed we said to each other, ok, we have to stop. But oh man was it worth it.

In the afternoon we dragged ourselves back to the apartment and checked our email. Rose had sent us a “..I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve booked you for dinner the whole week…”. Hell no we didn’t mind. That night we met her for a lovely European style dinner, where we all shared a nice bottle of Shiraz and we devoured our respective contemporary takes on french preparations of old standbys. Braised lamb, roasted quail, and a steamed fish. The dinner was pleasant and the company was even better. To top it all off it had one of the best nighttime views of The Bund. All this and it’s only a day into Shanghai. More to come.

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Chicken Ten Different Ways

We just had the most sublime yakitori ever at a place we have no idea what the name is. When we were walking back to the hotel this afternoon, we spied a little place getting ready for the dinner rush. There were a couple of older gentlemen behind the counter and the display case was chock full of yakitori sticks. (Yakitori is various types of meats and vegetables on skewers that are grilled over a charcoal fire.) There wasn't a menu, but we had a good feeling about it. A few hours later we returned to check it out. 

It was a set menu consisting of ten yakitori sticks, a salad, grated radish, and chicken soup. Almost all of the sticks were chicken – but we didn't even notice until almost the end of the meal! We sat at the counter, watching the guys work their magic. The guy who manned the grilling station was so focused on his job that absolutely nothing could distract him. 

What was so amazing about this yakitori was how different each one tasted even though it was "just" grilled chicken. For instance, the wasabi chicken was ridiculously tender, just seared on the outside and raw on the inside. It just melted in your mouth. On the other hand, the chicken neck was deliciously chewy, a bit like squid or octopus. And ground chicken tastes totally different from chicken thigh! How often do you get to compare how all of these parts of the chicken compare to each other? We loved that this tiny little place focused on something so specific and had a set menu. They're so confident in what they do, you don't need a choice because it's going to be good and that you just need to trust them.

It's approximately three blocks south of Ginza-Itchome station exit 10. Go out the exit, continue walking straight for about 3 blocks, it's on the left. It has no menu, look for the old guys. 2200 yen set menu of 10 pieces.

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Japan rocks our world

OK people. The reason why we've been so quiet lately is that we've been going like mad and dithering over writing blog posts. So here's a quick overview of what we've been doing in Japan. (Yes, we will fill you in on Shanghai and Seoul in a bit, and more about specifics in Japan – like My. Favorite. Logo. Ever.)

Our itinerary for Japan was sort of a big black hole, even while we were in Seoul. Should we go to Kyoto first? Or Tokyo? Then we started reading and we were like, woh, there is so much to see here, how are we going to decide? Fortunately for us, we've been emailing Wayne's friend Nafumi for recommendations. Right after we booked our flight, she emailed us and said, I have a friend who could possibly put you up for a few nights, you should meet him! He lives near Kagoshima!

I scratched my head, I had no idea where Kagoshima was. It's a city on the island of Kyushu, the third largest and most southwestern of the main islands. It's a more tropical place, with the volcano of Sakurajima that looms large over the landscape. We said "yes please" and changed our tickets to land in Kagoshima, and Yoshi came and met us at the airport. 

We were so glad that we changed our tickets – Yoshi was the most amazing host ever. He made fabulous dinners for us every night – from shabu shabu to sukiyaki to chicken sashimi (yes it was delicious). He took us to so many places, like Kirishima national park, where we went hiking; an outdoor contemporary art museum; and an onsen in Ibusuki that had the most breathtaking view of the bay. We were so grateful to experience Japan with someone who lives here, it's made such a difference to how we perceive it. And visiting a place that is off the beaten path has also been so rewarding – I don't think we would have gone to Kagoshima on our own this time around. 

After a few days, we said goodbye to Yoshi and jumped on the train for Hiroshima. I love the trains here. They are so efficient and timely and they make sense! Even if I can't read Japanese, the system is logical enough to figure out when you look at the schedules. The train is clean and pleasant and FAST. The U.S. only wishes it had a system as nice as this.  And to top it off, the selection of food at the stations is so unbelievably good! Little lunchboxes filled with sushi or some kind of pork or rice balls or whatever. It's just so…civilized.

I also have to point out that every single meal that we've had here has been good. Even when we pick a totally random hole-in-the-wall that we have no idea what the food is going to be like, I end up cleaning my plate every time. We've stumbled upon or were brought to a ramen place that won #1 in the shio (salt broth) ramen category in its district, a conveyor belt sushi place that had ridiculously fresh sushi (and yes we tried horse sashimi), freshly made udon at another small joint in Hiroshima, okonomiyaki hot off the grill, some kind of fried chicken/fried chicken ball/fried ham combo plate (ok sounds gross but was delicious) at a place frequented by office workers…the list goes on. We've been devouring pastries every morning for breakfast because they're so good and relatively cheap. (Um yes that must be why I'm getting a belly. Sigh.)

We didn't have much time in Hiroshima so we focused on visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and the park around it, where the A-bomb dome is. Seeing the mangled dome with the walls around it that just disintegrate into rubble and visiting the museum hit me pretty hard emotionally. I tried to imagine the horror of that day but I really can't even comprehend what it must have been like. There were drawings from the survivors that were displayed in the museum that recounted their experiences and I felt a deep sadness that was also partly anger – how can we still build nuclear weapons when we already know the horrible consequences and suffering that happens? It just seems so foolish.

But I think the most hopeful thing is that Hiroshima today is not completely defined by the bomb. Yes, there are many memorials and the city strives to bring a message of peace to the world, but the city feels lively and bustling. A city that feels like it would be fun to live in – lots of great restaurants, excellent street life, easy to get around, good cultural institutions. Hiroshima feels like it's moved on to a bright shiny future.

After our short time in Hiroshima we caught an overnight train to Tokyo. We've been here for less than twelve hours, but we've managed to visit Tsukiji Fish market, wander around the smaller streets in Ginza, and see the Imperial Gardens. (and write this blog post!) So far, it seems like a city like New York. Rich and powerful. Enormous luxury cars zoom down the street, and crystalline skyscrapers glisten in the lovely spring light. I'm still trying to figure out what is Tokyo's character, what sets it apart from Shanghai and Seoul and Hong Kong. Give me another two days and I'll get back to you on that one. 

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The Sleepiest Big City You’ll Ever Meet

Maybe we wouldn’t have ever to been to the sleepy yet crashingly vibrant city of Chengdu in Sichuan province of China if we’d never read Fuschia Dunlop’s book “Shark Fin Soup and Sichuan Peppers: A Sweet and Sour Memoir of Eating in China”. And we would be kicking ourselves all the way to our graves had we known what we missed.

Remember how we took a painstakingly long train trip from Guangzhou in South China all the way to Chengdu in the South West? We still haven’t told you anything about the city that brought us across a continent.

Food is at the heart of any journey through China. Sitting here with a stoutly stretched belly in Shanghai, I look back with warm heart and fondness of our stay in Chengdu. While we used the city as a base for several ventures, the main reason we headed there is because we both read Fuschia’s book. Tracie read it before we even set foot abroad and I finally tucked it safely into the Pun Pun Cafe library shelves when we set out from Thailand to Hong Kong. I cannot underestimate the importance of her introduction to Chinese food, and China itself has influenced our own thinking about food and eating. It has been like we strolled into a secret room and found the rock that opens a lost lit tunnel.

Chengdu, a city of 11 million by my last check on Wikipedia (that’s almost twice as big as New York by population!), holds surprises at every turn, tearing down old buildings and back alleys and throwing up high-rises to house untold millions.

Thankfully life still churns. We stayed on a hip and happening street in a just as stylish hostel, the Loft hostel, where young Sichuanese with new found disposable cash spend it lounging with Westerners from across the globe. The Loft hostel sits on Xiatongren Lu. It’s a hotbed of young meets old, where you can rise at an easy hour of 9am and lounge around and watch the street vendors ride by, pitching everything from knife sharpening and shoe shining to fresh veggies and handmade noodles. Or you can pull yourself into one of any number of  “Foreigner Friendly” restaurants and find loads of young locals looking cool and living large eating Chengdu variations of Pizza and Hamburgers.

We felt lucky with that street. We ate our first hot pot on our first night, leading to hot pants for me the next day walking through the Panda reserve (hot going in and hot coming out). We drifted on down the street and shared a bowl of hand-pulled noodles the next. We spent hours every day just absorbing the street life and were surprised to see just how diverse a street could be, our little piece of Xiatongren Lu not excluded.

Our second day we spent partly ferried outside of the city to do the touristy thing and see the Panda Reserve. Cute pandas! Once we got the pandas and the hot pot out of our systems, we headed back and spent another leisurely day walking around the city. Chengdu is somehow a huge city where you can while away the hours. The parks are full of young and old alike. On the streets past lunchtime, one is bound to find a vendor napping, a group of older Chinese arguing over mahjong or a group of middle aged businessmen discussing terms over tea. Teahouses, hot pot, “xiao chi” (small eats), taxis, bicycles, strolls, cats on leashes, dogs unleashed. Any afternoon and every corner.

Chengdu is China’s south and its west, it holds the cusp of the Wild West at bay, while the southern pace, that seems to float across the belly of the world, hovering just above (and perhaps below) the equator. When things get steamy, or chilly and dreamy, people turn to one another and the foods they can talk about over the day’s business or play.

One day, we happened upon Chengdu’s People’s Park. It was mid-week, I think it was a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle at least. Every foot of the park was swirling with activity. Impromptu Sichuanese operas alight in every nook and cranny, speakers cranked to drown out others near and far. Tiled circles and squares overflow with people dancing. Lines drape for meters in the trees, encumbered with poetry bashes, done up in Chengdu style, where lashings of calligraphy screech off in varied size and form. Men stroll about with their bird cages for a walk. Ear cleaners chime their tines plying for business. The people are everywhere and the people’s park it is.

Just today we strolled through the same named park here in Shanghai, and while there were people doing their exercises and others putting their kuai up against a game of chess or cards, there wasn’t the same density, the same vibrancy to the park. Chengdu is the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang of our trip. The differences are clear – the Sichuanese live their lives on the street.

In fact, one of the best meals we’ve had in the country and the best Sichuan cooking by far we found in a back alley, tucked under the eaves of a glowering and looming new high-rise. A young lady, face-covered, brow sweating, flames lapping, poured over her woks and stoves, served up the best spicy green beans and fish-scented pork we’ve had to date. Construction workers loomed and settled in from their long haul of a day to the best and cheapest meal in town.

Like much of our trip, we would have never found it were it not for someone else that had blazed ahead. Only the night before Tracie had come upon a post on EatingAsia.com where the joint was highly lauded and vaguely located. While the young chef didn’t really bat an eye at my anglo-foreign-ness, her dining room was littered with faces in awe at another visit from the little-seen “white devils”.

In Chengdu, we met up with the “Ma” and the “La” and the “Oui Jiao” that Fuschia Dunlop describes so well, that sensation that binds your mouth, lips to cheek, to back of the throat, with numbness, opened us up to flavors and sensations we’d never met before. No place in the world have I had that taste before and as the lifeforce of the city itself, it takes to the streets and wafts around every corner, calling you back.

We based many of our regional trips around Chengdu. It became our hub of the province. And an easy hub to lean back on. The pandas were near, while a longer bus ride took us to the hailed ancient wares of “Sanxingdui”, where recently un-earthed bronzes, jade and clay date from as far back as 7000 BCE.
Only later to visit a living museum, where modern chinese roam the ancient remains of a vibrant and growing city of Lanzhong.

What the people of Chengdu miss out in sunny days, beating London with more cloud covered days a year, they make up for in loads of charm, hospitality, and sense of life. The chillies and peppercorns lend warmth when its cold and damp, and the tea houses keep the dull-drums away. But danger creeps in new forms everyday. Rubble encircles and interleave the city as high-rises tower and dwarf the lazy streets and avenues. All too near is a dread and the sense of a quickening to the overall pace of life. Hope floats in the rituals of the city, the overflowing parks, the calling of the traveling vendors, the roar of the hot pots, wherein living life in the streets gently keeps some of the sprawling “China Today” development at bay.

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Sichuan, land of the numbingly spicy

And I certainly don't mean that in a bad way. One of the reasons (besides the pandas) why we decided to come to Sichuan province was because of the cuisine, which is famous for its use of chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns have a curious property: they make your mouth go numb, and it's something the Chinese call “ma”. In combination with “la”, the spiciness from regular red chilies, Sichuan cuisine has built a fearsome reputation for its spicy food.

We had our first taste of the peppercorn when we went for hotpot a couple of nights ago. We've been for hotpot before, but this was a bit different; rather than boiling broth, it was a concoction of boiling oil, chilies, peppercorns, and other spices. It was bright red and the scent coming off of it was spicy and tingly. We chose a couple of things off of the menu, which luckily was in English (avoiding the “urinating beef balls” and “ox penis” but at least getting some tripe and beef tendon), dumped it into the boiling oil, and hoped for the best. I fished out a piece of beef, dunked it in some sesame oil, cilantro and scallions, and carefully bit into it. My mouth immediately caught on fire from the red chilies, but as I continued chewing this curious sensation spread on my tongue – my mouth was turning numb from the peppercorns! It's so hard to describe it, I was totally weirded out at first. Maybe it's a bit like when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and your tongue feels furry, but multiply it by ten and maybe you'd come close.

As we've been eating, we've noticed that the peppercorn is in everything – the stir fries, the noodles, the soups. Sometimes they're added in whole, sometimes they're sneaky about it and crush it up. So while you're eating your mouth goes numb and you didn't even know what hit you. Even for breakfast! I can see why people like it so much though, the interplay between the fiery red chilies and the peppercorns is such a great combination. I especially love the the dried fried red chilies, when done just right they're a bit crispy, oily, fragrant and spicy, I end up picking them out of the dish and finishing them before we've even eaten the rest of the food.

Eating out here is very inexpensive – on average we're spending about $6 US for any given meal, sometimes as little as 75 cents (!) –  but it's finding the right ones that can be tough. Small mom and pop places are everywhere in the city, we've passed by so many I can't even keep count. They're little open air joints with a couple of tables, sometimes the kitchen is open to the eating area, sometimes it's in the back. We've evolved some rules though to decide how to pick one.

  • Walk around during meal times. Then you can see which ones are busy. If it's busy, there must be a reason why!
  • If it's a busy one, look at the floor and the surrounding environment – are there tons of napkins and debris on the ground? If so, skip it because the kitchen is probably disgusting. If the place looks clean, better chance that the kitchen will be clean too.
  • What are people ordering? If the menu is only in Chinese, then it's easier if you go to busy place and point at something that you might want to try than to struggle to string together a sentence. Going into an empty restaurant is tough.
  • Do the proprietors seem welcoming or at least interested in your business? Skip it if they scowl at you. 
  • How does it smell? If it's stinky you probably don't want to go there, and conversely if it smells good then check it out. Trust your nose.

We've actually had a lot of good meals at random places that we'll never know the name of by following the rules to some extent. We had amazing dumplings in Langzhong, they were so good that we went back for breakfast a second time.

Another thing that was inevitable is that ordering off the menu when you can't read and communicate is a crap shoot. Especially when there are no pictures. Sometimes it just comes down to opening the menu and pointing at something, because saying “What do you recommend?” in Chinese (at least my Chinese) draws blank stares. On the train we were lucky and ended up ordering fish fragrant pork, something that is pretty basic and non-scary. At a hole-in-the-wall which we found via EatingAsia, we managed to order some delicious stir fried beans and the fish fragrant pork again (yes, we've learned to identify that one at least.) At other meals we were not so fortunate, one dish was a bunch of offal that neither of us could identify – maybe it was chicken intestine, maybe not? The dish itself was mediocre, and maybe I am better off not knowing what it was. Another meal we ended up ordering snake. Glad I experienced it, but probably wouldn't order it again. So kids: learn your Chinese, you will thank me in the end!

I have to say that I am not fond of the packaged drinks and snacks in Sichuan. Actually, the bottled drinks are quite awful. They're all sugary and fake tasting, real juice does not exist, not even at froofy drink stands. At least in Sichuan it's hard to get a decent cup of tea unless you're at a teahouse, but we haven't really honed our mahjong skills enough to feel comfortable hanging out in one for more than a half hour or so. Coffee is crappy/non-existent. Snacks tend to be overly pungent or that snappy texture that seems to offend Westerners to no end, or are crappy horrible ripoffs of brand names like Pringles. I keep dreaming of all the lovely fruit juices and kopi-o in Singapore and the fresh coconuts in Thailand.

However, we had some great freshly prepared snacks at a pedestrian area known as Jin Li Street. Sichuan is also known for its xiao chi, literally “small eats”. Vendors specialize in one type or another, it can range from various types of fried meat on a stick similar to kebabs to tofu with molasses sauce. Often these are just street vendors, which we've been avoiding them for the sake of the peace of our stomachs. But we were able to sample a bunch of these snacks at Jin Li Street, as the sanitary conditions are a bit more standardized. Our favorite by far was a combo dish of five types of vegetarian rice rolls, they were savory and a bit spicy, and each had its own texture. All in all, we've really enjoyed the food here and are glad that we had a chance to try it. Next up on our plates later on this week: yak meat and other Tibetan delicacies! Stay tuned…

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Finding Heart and Soul in the Megapolis of Hong Kong

If we’ve learned anything at all on this trip it’s that we live on this small little globe hurtling through the universe, where everyone knows one of our friends or someone in our family and everyone is willing to amaze and surprise us with their hospitality and generosity.

In one day last week we met up with two groups of people, the first were long-time friends of Tracie’s Aunt and Uncle, Chris and Anna and the others were friends of friends from NY.

King, Margaret and Maxine are friends of Anna and Chris and we met them for Dim Sum Saturday morning this past week. They took us to the best Dim Sum we had in Hong Kong at Maxim’s and we chatted for many hours. King, Margaret and their daughter are all beautiful people that shared with us so much information about local traditions and city knowledge that we didn’t hesitate when they offered to let us crash on their couch when our hotel stay was up.

We checked out of our hotel on Monday and invaded their lives for the past 5 days. They really have shared a side of Hong Kong we would have never seen and it has reiterated how important a longer stay is to really get to know the people that live in a place and the place itself. We hope you enjoy the photos below and King will forward us more soon of all of us escapades that he has taken hisself. He’s a terrific photographer to boot and we look forward to seeing them again and hosting them somewhere in the future.

The very evening we met up with the Lai’s, we met up with friends of John and Acacia our friends in NY, Alex and Tammie, who took a risk and met us at a private kitchen in Happy Valley, Hong Kong Palace Kitchen and we are all kicking ourselves for not taking photos of the food, because it was beautiful and delicious homestyle Cantonese cooking. We had a great time with both of them and Alex’s Mom and their friend Ian. It was a regular hoot. And we finished it off with a quick visit to a skyhigh bar at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Bar there in Happy Valley.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg of our visit here.

Now we’re onto mainland China, Guangzhou to start and onto Chengdu in the next couple of days for about 10 days and them back to the East in Shanghai an onto South Korea. Enjoy the pics and talk to you all “soon?”. 😉

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Addicted to Chilies

OK, I'll admit it – I've been adding chilies to my breakfast lately. My tolerance for spice seems to be getting higher the longer we're in Thailand and food seems to be missing something when there isn't any heat. Dare I say…boring? When we're in the States, I eat Thai (or at least Thai-style) food at least once a week (shout out to my former coworkers/lunch buddies at Six Apart!), and have been dying to know what makes it so addictive. Beyond the chilies.

When I think of Tom Yum soup, or any of the curries, or Pad Thai, the fiery spiciness is always mellowed by a sweetness. And the sweet is never too clingy because there's a sour-fishy-pungent-ness that follows. At least if you go to a good Thai place that gets the balance right. To find out what makes Thai food tick, we joined a vegetarian cooking course at Yousabi, which is now part of Pun Pun farm (which I've written about here). Krid, our awesome teacher for the course, led us through eleven dishes in two days. As we made our way through the dishes I kept adding more and more chilies – MOAR  SPIZE PLZ!

The basic pantry of the Thai kitchen is very straightforward: palm oil, palm sugar, fish sauce (although we used soy sauce as a substitute during the course because it was vegetarian), and coconut milk. Palm oil gets a bad reputation but is actually a really good oil to cook with because it has a high smoke temperature and has a neutral flavor. This also makes it ideal for frying. Palm sugar is an ingredient that I've never encountered before, but it was in almost every dish we made – and I think it made a big difference in melding all the flavors together and what's been missing in my former attempts to make Thai food at home. Fish sauce is used instead of using straight salt and gives the food that pungent flavor. Coconut milk provides the sweetness that balances out the heat.

Key herbs and spices include chilies, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and galangal. If you can't find all of these fresh then you're shit out of luck for making fresh curry paste. We also made use of tamarind juice and lime juice to add sour notes. Other handy ingredients include kaffir lime/kaffir lime leaves/kaffir lime peel, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and black soy sauce. The most time consuming part was making the curry paste. I definitely wouldn't skimp on that part, it makes a huge difference in flavor when you make it yourself – and of course with a mortar and pestle, food processors don't really allow the ingredients to release all of the flavor.

Then pretty much it's the combination of the basic ingredients, either as a curry or a stir fry or as a soup, with tofu and veggies in a wok, either with rice or noodles, and you've got homemade Thai food. It seemed amazingly simple and I wondered why I've never done it before. Pad Thai is a breeze! Green papaya salad, no problem! Even making soup was quick because we weren't laboriously making stock, we were just boiling a lot of the herbs together to make a light broth. Once you've got the ingredients prepped, the actual cooking part happens very quickly. Thai food seems to be about using cooking heat to release the maximum amount of flavor and color in a short amount of time.

Here's the recipe for Penang Curry, my favorite dish we made. Amounts can be adjusted to your liking, don't be afraid to eyeball it.

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PENANG CURRY
For the paste:

  • dried red chiles, soaked for a bit and then minced
  • lemongrass stems, chopped
  • large chunk of galangal, sliced
  • shallots
  • garlic

Combine these ingredients in a heavy stone mortar and pestle. Mash until it's almost smooth. Then add

  • 1 tsp. Coriander seed
  • 1 tsp. Cumin seed

Preferably these have been dry roasted beforehand. Continue pounding the mixture until is is a paste.

For one serving:

  • 1 ½ tsp palm oil
  • long beans
  • eggplant
  • tofu
  • ¾ cup coconut milk
  • 1 tsp palm sugar
  • ½ tsp fish sauce (or dark soy sauce)
  • roasted peanuts, crushed
  • slices of fresh red pepper and kaffir lime leaf for garnish

Add palm oil in a wok over low heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add at least a heaping tbsp of curry paste, or to taste. Fry the paste for a bit. Just before it starts browning, add 2 tbsp of coconut milk. Continue to fry the paste until the oil from the coconut milk begins to separate from the paste. Add vegetables to the wok (long beans, eggplant, tofu). Add the rest of the coconut milk.

Now add the palm sugar and fish sauce, stir to combine. Add a bit of water if it's too dry. Turn the heat up and cook until the vegetables are cooked but firm/crisp. Add the crushed peanuts. Garnish with the red pepper and kaffir lime leaves, serve accompanied with rice.

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I will be hitting up the Thai grocer on Bayard St. when I get home, that's for sure.  I  really have no excuse for being lazy and not cooking at home and going out for cheap Thai food, because now I can make it exactly how I like with as many chilies as I like. Anyone ready to come over for dinner?

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