4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Food”

Eating Our Way Through Hong Kong, Again (by Nathan)

Urban density from ICF building

Urban density from ICF building

Flying into Hong Kong is such a wonderful and exciting experience.  We were both giddy in our seats to return to one of our favorite places on the planet.  We were having a great time in China, but Hong Kong is a magic place that brings out the best of East and West. Let’s recap:  we explored Yunnan and Southern China for a month then landed in Hong Kong to rejuvenate and refresh our visa.  We then when back into China to explore Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan provinces.  Now, we have returned to Hong Kong as a final hoorah to our around-the-world trip.   In Hong Kong, we could continue eating the phenomenal Asian food we love as well as sample restaurants that pull their inspiration from every corner of the world.  The subway and transit in Hong Kong is one of the best we have ever experienced and it is especially nice to not have to push our way on as we did in China.  Clean bathrooms, English signage and menus and the lack of honking scooters make Hong Kong accessible to everyone.  I particularly love the density of Hong Kong; fifty story building tower in every direction.  People are everywhere, but Honk Kong does not feel crowded; it feels efficient, welcoming to visitors and entertaining in every direction.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

View of Mong Kok from our Kowloon apartment.

We rented a small, but well organized apartment for a few days.  It was a studio with an efficient layout and plenty of room for two people.  We especially liked that one of the panels of the closet could be pushed inward to reveal the bathroom.  When the door was closed it was impossible to tell that there was another room beyond the wall of cabinets.  The view from the 16th floor was beautiful.  We had a great time watching the tiny ants of people scurry around the city streets.  Or we watched the groups of teenagers playing basketball. It was a cozy apartment in the middle of Kowloon and a fifteen minute walk in any direction would unveil thousands of restaurants.  Thus we had our work cut out for us.

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

Pork and rice clay pot at Four Seasons

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

A very busy Four Seasons restaurant near Temple St market

We decided to start with some restaurants that we knew.  This is our third visit to Hong Kong each time we leave we could not wait to come back.  One of our favorite restaurants is Four Seasons Clay Pot.  They have a decently sized menu, but the real challenge is what to get in the clay pot; we ordered one with some Chinese sausage and pork and another with duck.  They bring the fired clay pot and practically slam it on the table.  We opened the lid squirted some soy sauce and hot sauce inside and placed the lid back over the top.  We learned that this is a good way to add some moisture to the pot and loosen the outer edges of rice that get crispy and sometimes burned.  This is a remarkably simple dish but the thirty person deep line outside is evidence that it is worth the visit.

 One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company


One of my favorite restaurants – Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

Macaroni soup, scrambled eggs and steamed egg custard at Australia Dairy Company

We could not visit Hong Kong without eating at this restaurant.  Australia Dairy Company epitomizes the Hong Kong diner by perfecting comfort food.  Unfortunately when we were here during spring festival the restaurant closed down from a week, but this time we were not going to miss out.  The waiters are a group of hyper attention deficit and gruff men. Within seconds of sitting you down they are hovering over you waiting for your order.  The environment is a little crazy at first, but I have learned to really enjoy how methodical and quick this place is.  We like a set menu that comes with a macaroni and ham soup that is rich well beyond its looks.  The set also comes with toast and scrambled eggs that are so light and fluffy that I have not successfully recreated them.  I think they must fold in beaten whites and fluffed butter into the yolks.  All this comes with a hot milk tea.  We also ordered one of their specialties- a steamed egg custard made from just the whites of the eggs.  We enjoyed our massive breakfast tucked into a tiny corner of the restaurant.  Both the food and the clientele reflected the influence and mix of cultures that makes Hong Kong great.

Peking Duck awesomeness

Peking Duck awesomeness

How could we resist making a duck taco?

How could we resist making a duck taco?

We did not visit Beijing this trip, but Hong Kong has everything, including one of the top rated Peking ducks in the country.  We walked right into this bowtie restaurant not knowing exactly what we were getting into.  Supposedly reservations were essential, but since we were only two people we had high aspirations.  To our great luck they had a table just for us.  We ordered a whole duck and some steamed vegetables to accompany it.  The ducks here are made to order so we had to wait a good 45 minutes for our duck to be injected with air, glazed and roasted.  They seal the duck and fill it with air to separate the skin from the body and create a crispy skin.  One chef is allowed to carve the ducks for the entire restaurant.  He pushes a small cart from the kitchen and sets to work.  He carves 1/4 inch slices starting from the neck and working down the body, each contains a crispy segment of skin.  He flips the carcass and repeats.  The waiters bring plates of cucumber, tender green garlic, hoisin sauce and Peking pancakes.  The round floury pancakes have a very close resemblance to tortillas; we combined all the ingredients and consumed our Chinese “tacos.”

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Lin Heung pork and rice bowl

Our last trip to Hong Kong involved one of our favorite dim sum places: Lin Heung.  Of course we returned and ordered a feast of dim sum.  This was a weekday so it was just slightly calmer than the last time we visited.  We ordered our usual array of sieu mai, ha gow, cha sieu bao and one additional pork and rice pot.

Man Mo Temple incense

Man Mo Temple incense

Just up the hill from Lin Heung is a beautiful temple.  The temple has been here for a couple hundred years and is a nice reminder of the traditional Chinese village that existed on Hong Kong Island before it became a financial headquarters to the world.

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Delicious shortbread egg tart at Tai Cheong

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

Flakey crust egg tart from Honolulu Bakery

It was the Portuguese that invented the egg custard tart.  A convent in Lisbon had a habit using enormous amounts of egg whites to starch their habits. They searched for some use of their overabundance of egg yolks and egg custard tarts were born.  When the Portuguese created colonies around the world, they brought custard tarts with them and slowly the dessert made its way into Cantonese cuisine.  Now egg custard tarts are served throughout the world in dim sum restaurants and bakeries.  The tarts we ate in Lisbon were heavenly, but Hong Kong can create a few that are truly decadent.  There is actually an ongoing competition for the bakery that can make the best egg tart in Hong Kong.  We decided to try out two of them: Honolulu bakery, known for the best flakey crust and Tai Cheong, known for the best short bread crust.  Both tarts were phenomenal.  I liked the run-down diner feel of Honolulu bakery, but in terms of flavor I am a sucker for the buttery crunch of shortbread.  All in all, we ate quite a few egg tarts, but neither Carmen nor I could declare a true winner between these two.

Korean awesomeness

Korean awesomeness

After a few days in a rented apartment we decided to save some money and meet some new people.  We moved down the street to couchsurf with a new friend of ours.  He lived in a Korean neighborhood in Kowloon.  There were at least fifty Korean restaurants within two blocks of each other.  We ate kimchi pancakes, bimbibop, bulgogi and sweet potato noodles.  I love how in Korean restaurants they serve the set of tiny dishes filled with pickles, kimchi, radishes and daikon.

Hong Kong history museum

Hong Kong history museum

The Honk Kong history museum is one of the best museums we have ever been too.  It has this amazing layout that teaches the geological origins of the city through its present day modernization.  There is a cultural aspect of the tribes that first settled it and the traditional festivals that still continue.  Both Carmen and I love learning about a city, its origins and its development and learning about Hong Kong, one of our favorite cities, was just icing on the cake.

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

Checking out the view of Hong Kong Island

A challenge with Hong Kong, for us, is that there is just too much to do.  There are fantastic museums, exciting harbor walks, island boat ferries, high-rise mazes and exorbitant amounts of food to eat and try. I love Hong Kong, it’s big and beautiful and everything I enjoy about the city.   We conquered most of our favorite places, but now it was time to see some new things.  Of course, that will have to wait until our next post.

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The Real Reason We Went To Chengdu Was To Eat! (by Nathan)

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

Sichuan snack sampler set (xiao chi tao can) at Long Chao Shou restaurant

The pilgrimage continued in a different kind of way when we were in Chengdu.  This city is sacred because it contains one of the most delicious cuisines in the world- Sichuan.  Sichuan literally translates to “four rivers”. These waterways created fertile valleys that supported bountiful harvests and a highly advanced cuisine. When we finally made it to Chengdu we were overwhelmed with choices and the main challenge each day was deciding where and what to eat.  We couldn’t go wrong with Long Chao Shou restaurant that made huge platters of Sichuan street foods for those like us with a sacred appetite.

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Wontons in numbing oil and fiery dan dan noodles

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Sichuan peppercorns (photo credit: wikicommons)

Carmen already covered what to do in Chengdu.  Those activities were fun, but I want to be honest with all of our readers, we really went to Chengdu to eat.   Sichuan peppercorns, for us, are way cuter than any panda bear.  Our love for Sichuan food actually began in Beijing during a cooking class in 2009.  An Australian friend we were cooking with encouraged us to chew on this tiny little pink peppercorn.  The rush of sour tastes was initially awkward, then later settled with intense salivation and saltiness.  The funny thing about Sichuan peppercorns is that they then numb the entire mouth.  The tingle strangely caught me off guard.  I pulled and tugged at my lips enjoying drunken dumbness of my mouth.  The feeling soon disappeared, but from that taste I was hooked and eager to use Sichuan peppercorns in everything.  We read the amazing autobiography (Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper) and cookbook (Land of Plenty) by Fushia Dunlop and our Chinese food skills quickly advanced.  I also threw the kernels in all sorts of dishes like pizza, barbecue sauce and deviled eggs.

Legendary mapo dofu

Legendary mapo dofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

A delicious chunk of gooey mapo tofu

Sichuan food is amazing because of its intense flavors and textures that are only matched by the best of world cuisines (Mexican, Thai & Indian- Sorry France, suck on my chili and peppercorns!).  A classic Sichuan Chinese dish is mapo dofu, tofu tossed into a fiery broth of broad bean paste, dried red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.  A touch of sugar, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, green onions some ground bacon is all that is needed to make this magic.  The result is a dish that is a touch sour, but spicy and savory with a slightly sweet ending.  The tofu is flavorful and creamy, the peppercorns are crunchy and the green onions slightly crisp.  In Sichuan it was served more dramatically than in the States.  The oils in the bowl are still sizzling the tofu when it hits the table, and the whole thing is topped with an additional spoonful of ground peppercorns and red chilies (and probably MSG).

Twice Cooked Pork

Twice Cooked Pork

Another favorite of ours is hou guo rou (twice-cooked pork).  This dish is basically pork belly or bacon that is boiled, then removed and cooled.  The pork is sliced and wok-fried with green garlic and of course chili peppers.  Yes, it is fantastic and rarely disappointing.  We ate this dish five times while in Sichuan.

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

The best gong bao chicken we’ve ever had

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

Stewed pork belly, gong bao ji and seasonal greens

There is one Sichuan dish that has made it to Panda Express, but don’t insult the Sichuan food gods.  Gong bao chicken (better known as kung pao chicken) is from the heavens and they don’t mess around in Chengdu.  And funny enough we found a crowded no-name restaurant with wooden tables three blocks south of Mix hostel on Renmin Zhonglu.  Their gong bao stands as one of my top three food items of this entire trip.  Somehow it is the simplest and known dishes that surprise us sometimes.  The chicken was caramelized with sweet, salty spiciness.  The peanuts had extreme flavor and crunch compared to the ones I have cooked with.  The dried red peppers provided an easy way to intensify and mitigate the spiciness.  Oh, and there were some green onions in there just because ;)

Sichuan snack shop

Sichuan snack shop

We also found ourselves eating delicious street food served within tiny restaurants.  One classic shop was across the street from the Wenshu temple and across from Long Chao Shou that I described earlier.  They served maybe twenty types of Sichuan snacks from spiced bean jellies, to wontons and what we went for- the heart, and gut of Sichuan food – dan dan noodles.  This noodle dish is basically egg noodles thrown onto a ground pork and red pepper oil.  The bowls are served small, like boat noodles in Thailand, and we found ourselves grabbing a bowl in between meals.

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Street kabob on sesame flatbread

Like in many Chinese cities, there were a handful of Uyghur kebab vendors in Sichuan.  We could smell this one for several blocks outside the Wenshu temple.  He grabbed a handful of skewers and placed them over the hot coals.  He fanned for the heat and after a few minutes we were given the succulent kabobs and a sesame flatbread.

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Made to order Chinese pocket sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Sichuan street sandwiches

Carmen chowing down

Carmen chowing down

I spotted this 20 sqft shop from the bus.  The line of people extended from the restaurant and wrapped around the street.  Another day around the corner I saw two women devouring pita pocket sandwiches, I jealously watched the dripping juices and food moans.  Call it food porn or whatever, but they looked good, the sandwiches I mean.  I had to figure out what they were and where they found them.  To my great excitement we walked by this tiny black sign and there were more sandwiches; to my great excitement this was the place I was eyeing. There are only a couple choices, mushroom, pork, beef and pig ear.  We ordered a couple, and the next day a couple more and the next day I would have eaten them again, but our stupid flight got in the way.  Each sandwich is made right there in front of the customers.  Two street chefs roll dough balls and bake the flat bread over a fire.  Then a handful of “stuffer” chefs toss together shredded carrots and daikon with chili oil and the meat or mushrooms.  Hell yeah I want it la jiao (spicy).  They stuff it into a hot flatbread, wrap it in wax paper and shove them into our hands.  We walk away happy and eager to find a secluded place as it was now our turn to devour these on the public sidewalk.  If you want to try these amazing sandwiches, the closet of a kitchen is called Chuan Bei Famous Snacks and it is on the east side of Renmin Zhonglu just between Hongshizhu Street and Wenwu Street.

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Hot pot tofu skin knots

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

Our raging hot pot and round three of veggies

We could not leave Sichuan without revisiting the craziness of hotpot. Hot pot is famous throughout Chengdu and Chongqing and we were feeling pretty confident that we could tackle it again.  We went to Yùlín Chuànchuàn Xiāng, we sat down and we ordered a spicy broth and a couple beers.  It was enormously easier to order here because there was an entire walk-in refrigerator lined with vegetables, tofu and skewered meats ready to be tossed into the bubbling broth.  Our essential favorite was the twisted tofu skin, and we also enjoyed broccoli, button mushrooms, cabbage, meat balls and a whole fish.

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

Various bowls of wantons in spicy oil, or broth or with cabbage

I get hungry just thinking of Sichuan food.  I had read about the food of Chengdu as if it was the stuff of legend.  The flood basin that makes the Sichuan province provides a bounty of culinary abundance truly defining it as a land of plenty.  This essential destination fulfilled our wildest dreams of flavors and textures.  Visiting Chengdu has provided us a context to the food, an experience within the Chinese culture and memory linked to my taste buds. It was difficult to leave, but we’ll be coming back and our stomachs will be grumbling until then.

Why Chongqing Hot Pot Has Ruined My Clothes And I Still Love It Anyway (by Nathan)

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

The glorious Chongqing hot pot

Hot pot is more than dinner, it is an experience, and in Chongqing, it is a ritual.  A huge pot gurgles and spits spicy broth in the middle of the table.  Countless plates of vegetables and meats are ordered and plopped in the broth.  The cooked treasures are then fished out with chopsticks then dunked in crushed garlic and sesame oil and shoveled into hungry mouths.  In our visit to Chongqing we were determined master eating hot pot, which to us, meant getting through the meal without dripping it on ourselves.  I was hopeless and I had to revise my goal to ten blotches; Carmen had amazing skill and grace until I accidentally flung a slippery piece of tofu into her bowl and splashed oil all over her shirt and pants.  Not good when we only packed two pairs of pants.

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Chongqing apartment towers as seem from a cable car

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

Tiny restaurants fill every nook and cranny

We have tried hot pot before, but no place compares to Chongqing.  This city is the ChongKING of hot pot and everyone in China knows it.  It is a signature dish of the city and hot pot shops around the world try to mimic the deliciousness that Chongqing residents have invented.  Hot pot shops are scattered all over the city.  They are everywhere, but several months ago there used to be even more of them.  A recent law made it illegal to sell hot pot on the sidewalk, thus destroying one of the signature street foods of the world and driving it indoors.  Nevertheless hotpot can still be found in lean-to shacks, high rise towers and even tucked into miniscule inhabitable spaces and bomb shelters.

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

More glorious hot pot with lotus root, bean sprouts, shaved beef and cauliflower

The whole process starts with sitting down at a table in some run-down restaurant; we found two: YèfùHuǒguō and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō (in an old bomb shelter) in a guide book and decided to give both try.  The center of our table had a depression in it and there was a rubber tube coming out of the floor to pump the natural gas to the burner.  Immediately upon sitting down the waitress was hovering over us.  We ordered ours zhōng là which is medium/very spicy (around  7-8 out of 10).  She scurried off to the kitchen and came back with a thick red fluid with thirty or so of dried chilies and hundreds of Sichuan peppercorns. We attempted in both cases to communicate the types of meat, tofu and vegetables that we wanted.  When that failed we resorted to walking in the kitchen to point out a few items that we felt were essential.  Eight or so plates showed up heaped with vegetables and frozen slivers of meat.  Our favorites were the lotus root slices, long-shooted mushrooms, and Dòngtíngxiān Huǒguō had some tofu that was some of the best of my life.

Cooking the ingredients is simple: throw them in the boiling pot, wait, pull them out and eat.  The cooked ingredients come out dripping with flavor and sizzling with heat.  The bubbling spicy fire broth is so hot that I still have not figured out whether it is called hot pot because of temperature or spice, but there were plenty of both.  We enjoyed our feast with our mouths tingling on fire and accompanied by an essential beer.  We walked away dizzy from the heat, stuffed to the brim, with our mouths still numb from Sichuan peppercorns.

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat temple tucked within Chongqing highrises

Arhat statue

Arhat statue

One fun sight to visit in Chongqing is the Arhat temple.  The tiny one-story complex is situated right in the center of town and surrounded by 100m skyscrapers.  The temple is one of the ancient structures in Chongqing at over 1000 years old complete with ancient stone carving and scary warrior gods.  There is a hall inside that houses hundreds of statues of arhats or monks that had found enlightenment.

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Chickpea Noodle soup for breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Tofu, rice and pickled cabbage breakfast

Our hostel was at the bottom of the hill, but close to the garmet distribution market.  We found an excellent food stall around the corner that served up some of our favorite fare: noodles and tofu.  The noodles were pretty standard but impressively spicy and the added chickpeas were a nice change.  We watched the owner scoop out the tofu out of a huge tub filled with water, she served it with some white rice and picked cabbage.

Historic Chongqing housing

Historic Chongqing housing

Traditional four-story home still with residents

Traditional four-story home still with residents

The great hall and plaza of of the people

The great hall and plaza of of the people

Chongqing has a pleasant array of historic and new architecture.  The traditional houses were built from wood stilts that were up to four-stories.  Many of these buildings have been replaced by modern high-rises, but there are a few neighborhoods that have a few leaning and partially condemned buildings still in use.  There is a rather new plaza near the great hall of the people and the three gorges dam museum. The plaza is one of the few places in China that is good for people watching.  There were several groups of people exercising in a way we had never seen before.  They would spin a top on the plaza paving then slap it with a long whip to get it going faster.  The chatter of kids and people talking is shared with the cracking of whips every few seconds.

Two travelers

Two travelers

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

Man carrying huge package down the Chongqing hills

We immediately fell in love with Chongqing.  Maybe it is the hills, or the spicy food, but everything felt familiar and enjoyable throughout our stay.   I think it was that we were getting nostalgic for San Francisco.  Chongqing is both older and newer than San Francisco.  We watched several Chongqing men carrying enormous packages on their backs up and down the stairways and I wondered if that type of thing existed in SF a hundred and fifty years ago.  Chongqing is about as far away from fixie bike messengers as SF is to having an urban density anywhere close to Chongqing. Differences and similarities are broad, and there is never enough time explore either fully.

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Carmen exploring a narrow alleyway

Yellow Húguang stairway

Yellow Húguang stairway

The city has its share of picturesque alleys, stairways and winding streets.  We roamed up and down the steep mountainside and sniffing at the air every time we passed spicy sizzling food.

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Pan-fried Sichuan long beans

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

Ma po dofu, ribs, rabbit dry pot and pastry; all spicy and delicious at Shùnfēng 123

We could not wait to get into the Sichuan region to the west.  Chongqing and Sichuan share their love for spicy food and for many years now Carmen and I have been obsessed with cooking and eating Sichuan.  So we went to a slightly more upper scale place than we are used to going.  I forgot all rules and ordered without abandon with the excellent picture menu. The Sichuan rabbit dry pot was fantastic, but too much work to pull off the meat from the shattered bones.  Long beans and ma po dofu remain one of my favorites and will continue to be ordered over the next few weeks.

Húguang Guild Hall

Húguang Guild Hall

Rooftop daemon

Rooftop daemon

Another cool sight is the Húguang Guild Hall.  This historic complex used to be a meeting place for local and regional merchants.  We explored the hillside buildings and opera stages and admired the ornate carvings and ornaments.

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Crazy knife-shaved noodle shop

Chongqing is simply a great city.  There is history and culture, but few big sights to attract tons of tourists.  It has impressive density and charm that has definitely fascinated us and we will definitely return some day.  We are obviously attracted to crowded places and even more so when food is involved.  We passed this knife-shaved noodle place ten times while exploring Chongqing.  The day we decided to get the noodles happened to be our last few moments in the city.  With our backpacks on we pushed and shoved our way into the tiny restaurant.  We sat in the back and two bowls were dropped in front of us. The noodle was more of a thin sheet of pasta and the broth rich and tangy.  With our hunger filled we boarded the brand new subway to the high speed train station. It was finally time to enter Sichuan and one of our most anticipated cities- Chengdu.

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

Nathan at the doorway of Yangtze River Hostel

Chowing Down With the Chairman In Changsha (by Nathan)

Mao's pork belly, the reason to come to Changsha

Mao’s pork belly, the reason to come to Changsha

Sometimes people travel to a place for sights, scenery or culture but we visited Changsha for one single reason- food! Changsha is the capital of the Hunan Province and king among one of the most delectable and delicious cuisines. It is also pretty close to the place where Mao was born, but that had little significance to our trip.

The ultra-modern and brand new Guangzhou high-speed rail station

The ultra-modern and brand new Guangzhou high-speed rail station

We reluctantly left the wonderful and clean Hong Kong to explore more of China. We love many aspects of China, we hate many parts too; Hong Kong allowed us to catch our breath, restore our health and ready ourselves for four more weeks of Chinese mayhem. We boarded a high-speed train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then a subway subway to the other train station and another high-speed train. Traveling by train at 380kmh (240mph) is wonderful experience. The hillside farms and villages indiscernibly flutter passed and we sit back comfortably and read our books. In just a few hours the warm humidity disappeared and we entered the cold landscape of south-central China.

Delicious pork and green peppers at Okuwu

Delicious pork and green peppers at Okuwu

We stayed at the one Hosteling International in town. This organization has been failsafe for us to find affordable rooms that are clean. Often there is staff that speaks English and sometimes we’ll opt for the upgrade that has a western toilet :) We roamed the main street for dinner options. It wasn’t late, but 8pm is really pushing it for dinner in China. We walked by an open room that was packed with groups of people sitting at round tables. We squeezed through the chairs, we waved our hands at the sixty people that were now staring at us and we sat next to the wall. The waitress came over with some tea and gave us a crude translation of five dishes on their menu. I opted for the point-and-order-method. I stood up and gestured for the perplexed women to follow me. The table in the corner had some pork belly that looked good. When I pointed at it she waved her hands and gave a cough. I interpreted this to mean that they had ran out (I’m often left guessing in these situations). I opted for the sizzling beef and bell pepper dish on that table next to ours and the seasonal greens that another waitress was carrying. I ordered some steamed rice and we were good to go. The restaurant was named Okuwu and it was a delicious find. The vegetables and meat were fantastic; the service was smiling and friendly. We liked it so much that we returned a few nights later for the pork belly.

Hunan feast at Huogongdian

Hunan feast at Huogongdian

Crispy and fragrant stinky tofu

Crispy and fragrant stinky tofu

The next few days we decided to take a culinary tour of Hunan cuisine. There was supposed to be this amazing museum with a 2,100 year old mummy that is so well preserved that the skin is still supple. Unfortunately, the museum will be renovated over the next three years. With little to do, our thoughts lingered on finding the best Hunan specialties. There is a pretty famous, and rightly so, restaurant named Huogongdian. They serve tapas-sized portions of local favorites. We selected a handful of specialties from the carts and we had to leaned back in awe when we realized the feast we had just ordered. The prize dish at most Hunan restaurants is the mao shi hong shao riu, a red braised pork belly dish in a spicy broth with onions, dried and fresh peppers. It was supposedly Mao Zedong’s favorite dish and definitely one of mine too. We also ordered chou doufu, a fried tofu dish. Not ordinary tofu, but tofu that has fermented and molded with a thick fur then deep fried until the mold turns blackish purple. The pungent smell of this dish is distinctly burned and almost sour; the taste is slightly funky and roasted, but not awful. Most blue cheese is way funkier and the Chinese think westerners are crazy for eating that!

Fisherman in the city park

Fisherman in the city park

 Lake pagodas


Lake pagodas

Locals having a rainy afternoon stroll

Locals having a rainy afternoon stroll

There is a pleasant park in Changsha with a small lake. The park has several rolling hills and plenty of waking paths. We enjoyed watching this fisherman scavenge one of the small ponds for what small carp might be hiding there. There also was a serpentine set of bridges and pagodas that crossed a narrow section of the lake. We strolled on the paths enjoying the remnants of winter trees and cloud-filled skies.

Uyghur woman fans coals alas she grills shish kabobs

Uyghur woman fans coals alas she grills shish kabobs

Fantastic street lamb kabobs

Fantastic street lamb kabobs

One development from our trip to China has been an intense fascination and interest in western Asia. The constant mix of cultures along the Silk Road has created a wealth of history and a richness of food that we want to explore. We loved Turkey and one of our future trips will need to be to Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan. China has a rather large population of the Muslim Uyghur people. They are a significant minority among the Han and are abundant in every city that falls in line with the historic trade routes of the Silk Road. Changsha was one of these trade cities. The Uyghur people we see are most often street vendors, they wear semi-traditional Muslim clothing and are often very friendly to us. They roast shish kabobs of mutton or goat on long wooden skewers over a coal fire. They fan the coals and season the meat with a sour blend of spices and pepper. We grabbed five skewers at the park entrance for ¥10 ($1.50) and we continued our walk through Changsha.

Additional pork and squid kabobs at "food corner"

Additional pork and squid kabobs at “food corner”

In the main downtown, there is an open-air hawker center that mostly sells skewered meats and stinky tofu in paper cups. This was a Chinese version of the Uyghur kabobs that uses similar seasoning, but the use othermeats like pork and squid. These were good, but the woman at the park entrance had created something amazing.

Fresh hand-cut Uyghur noodles

Fresh hand-cut Uyghur noodles

A few dive restaurants had caught our eye walking around. At the front of the restaurant there would be a huge mound of dough sitting on the table and a Uyghur man stretching out huge lengths of noodles. We walked into one of these at lunch time and selected two dishes that we saw other people eating. Mine was a pretty standard beef noodle soup ubiquitous in China, but Carmen had this amazing hand-cut flat noodle with an onion broth poured over the top.

My arsenal of firecrackers

My arsenal of firecrackers

It will be difficult to forget the tastes and variety of food in Changsha. But I will be happy to forget the incessant firecrackers that would go off every morning at 7am. During Chinese New Year, shop owners and families celebrate with reels of firecrackers at all hours of the day. I too am a pyro at heart. Carmen sent me off to go play with the kids down the street. I found three six-year-olds with a lighter more than willing to show me how to light a cracker and throw it in the air. Then I pulled out the 10 inch coffee can sized reel out of a bag. We were all excited; we strung out the fireworks along the playground wall and I lit one end, my friends lit the other. For two to three minutes we watched fireworks explode in the night. The intense sound echoed off the buildings and fiery debris spewed out into the night air. It was so loud and so fun! We were celebrating over a year of travel and welcoming the year of the snake. It will be hard to pull it off, but maybe this year will be better than the last? We’ll at least try.

My ears were still ringing when we boarded our bus to Zhangjiajie. I was excited for the mountain landscape that is one of the most unique land formations in the world…

Feeling Free in Hong Kong (by Carmen)

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Spectacular Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong was the first stop on our Asia trip in 2009 and we absolutely loved it. When people asked what our favorite city of the trip had been, the answer was obvious. From our first dim sum bite, the city enchanted us. With the sky high architecture, and we were awestruck. But just around the corner, amid all the modernity, we would find an old school market that would bring us back down to earth. I always said I could easily live in Hong Kong.

And yet, over time I began to feel a little jaded. Perhaps my memory of Hong Kong was colored by the fact that it was my first time outside the western world. Maybe as a more seasoned traveler, my second visit to Hong Kong would reveal that it was actually too congested or too westernized or too sanitized or just not to my liking anymore. That I had put it on a pedestal that it wasn’t really worthy of.

Hong Kong, how could I have ever doubted you? You are everything I remembered and more.

Dumplings boiled and fried

Dumplings boiled and fried

We needed some food fast when we got off the train and within our first block walking we were drawn to a dumpling restaurant. Backpacks and all, we squeezed our way in for some boiled kim chi dumplings. We also sampled some fried pork, leek and yellow curry varieties. They were simple, fast, great. Wow, HK. You had me at hello.

Our visit to HK was partially dictated by our need to reset our China visa. Because, really, this isn’t the best time to see the city. For one, the new year week is expensive as Chinese tourists flood the city. At the same time, all offices and many family owned shops and restaurants are closed. It’s a strange time. We decided to make use of our visit here to take full advantage of the fast, uncensored internet. Oh my god! It felt like I was re-entering the modern world. I didn’t realize how much I had missed posting on the blog, reading other blogs, reading BBC news, all my Google calendars, docs, etc. This excitement was compounded by what I saw on the street – Belgian beer bars, restaurants decorated with colors other than red and gold – it was exhilarating. Yes, some of these factors are simply the western influence on the city. Hong Kong is not considered “true” China.  All I know is that the city made me feel free.

Fireworks in the harbor

Fireworks in the harbor

There was one benefit of visiting during the new year – fireworks. Nathan and I saw the best fireworks show of our lives! It was even better than Nathan’s previous best at Mariachi USA :) They were plentiful, beautiful and well timed. All of it, of course, with the backdrop of HK Island skyscrapers.

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Yumminess at Crystal Jade

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

Crystal Jade on the 3rd Floor

There is so much to see in HK but this trip was not for sightseeing. We had a lot of work to do – blogging, wedding planning, trip planning all takes time. The slow internet in China wasn’t cutting it for us so things had piled up again. After a long day at the hostel computer we asked the receptionist for a restaurant recommendation. He directed us to a place just a couple blocks away. Nathan was skeptical, thinking that the rec. was based more on proximity than good quality. But he need not have worried. Crystal Jade, on the third floor of a mall, was delicious. We were seated right away, our tea cups were kept full and the Shanghai cuisine was delightful. Of course we had to eat the xiao long bao (soup dumplings) which are steamed pork dumplings with warm broth sealed inside. We complimented these with more pork in a sweet dough wrap. Then the noodles, with a thick savory sauce that we could thin to our liking with broth.

Honeymoon Desserts

Honeymoon Desserts

Fortunately, we saved room for dessert. Also near our hostel, we had noticed this place because of the crowds. It was a tiny dessert cafe called Honeymoon Desserts.  I opted for mango, pomelo, grass jelly and tapioca balls in a sweet soup topped with a scoop of green tea ice cream. Yum! Nathan had a warm walnut and black sesame soup. Inside hid a few glutinous rice balls filled with ground peanuts. Impressive stuff.

Entrance to Lin Heung

Entrance to Lin Heung

Lin Heung dim sum

Lin Heung dim sum

Siu mai

Siu mai

To start off another “work” day we went to one of our favorite places in Hong Kong. Lin Heung is the real deal. A little grungy, slightly grumpy service and excellent dim sum. On our first visit in 2009, it was a summer weekday. Old regulars were hanging out, reading the paper, as carts were pushed by. In that same trip we visited again on a weekend. The place was transformed into a madhouse of people pushing for dim sum. The carts barely made it out of the kitchen before being stripped bare. On this visit, things were pretty crazy again. The pushing was even more aggressive than I remember. Perhaps because there were more mainland Chinese holidaymakers? Not sure. The dim sum was predictably good but I am excited to visit again when it’s calm.

Under Bridge Spicy Crab

Crispy shrimp from Under Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant

The dim sum held us over until dinner, when we were ready to feast again. Again near our hostel, we went to Under Bridge Spicy Crab Restaurant. As we waited for our table we looked longingly at the crab covered in crispy fried garlic. That is, until we saw the price. A crab for two for $60 (USD). Must have been inflated for the holidays. We instead switched our sights to garlic crusted shrimp which turned out to be an excellent substitute.

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Hokkaido Milk Restaurant

Another one of our fave HK eateries is Australia Dairy Company which is unfortunately closed for the time we are here. It is an institution serving amazing fried eggs, toast, coffee, macaroni soup. Yes, doesn’t sound too exciting but there is magic in the way they make it here. To get our fix, we went to Hokkaido Milk Restaurant instead. We didn’t have high expectations but were pleasantly surprised! The eggs were perfectly cooked, still slightly runny in the center, the toast was well buttered, and the macaroni soup deceivingly rich. Made me very happy.

I could have spent more time in HK, but instead that would have to wait until the end of the trip, after the holidays were over. Therefore, we prepared ourselves to re-enter the wilds of China.  Watch out, Hunan, Chongqing and Sichuan here we come!

Our One Year Travel-versary in Guangzhou (by Carmen)

Peach blossoms for the new year

Peach blossoms for the new year

Guangzhou kind of gets a bad rap.  Yeah, it’s not that pretty and there aren’t a great many sights to see.  But I still liked it.  The area was a major trading post for centuries and one can still feel the influence from the mix cultures.  Another winning factor is that Guangzhou is a real city, geared more towards manufacturing than simply tourism.  Add an abundance of dim sum and an excellent subway system and I was sold.

Street side vegetarian dumplings

Street side vegetarian dumplings

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

BBQ Pork at Guangzhou Restaurant

From the beginning, Guangzhou took care of us.  After checking into our hotel and taking a nap I was very hungry.  Just before popping into the subway there was a lady selling dumplings! We bought a half dozen vegetarian dumplings for $0.50.  Good deal.  We then rode to downtown where we walked the lively shopping streets.  I had read a recommendation for an eatery in the area with a straightforward name – Guangzhou Restaurant.  We found it but the garish neon exterior wasn’t exactly welcoming.  We went inside anyway and found a good quality meal of BBQ pork, buns and Chinese greens in a light broth.

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

Dim sum at Panxi Restaurant

But what we were really excited for was dim sum.  Many a morning in SF were spent at our favorite dim sum restaurants with old ladies pushing carts of food for us to choose from.  We know the names of the classic dishes – ha gow (shrimp dumpling), cha siu bao (bbq pork steamed bun), siu mai (pork and shrimp dumpling topped with roe).  We were ready.  During our time in Guangzhou we were able to sample two of the most well known dim sum restaurants.  The first, Panxi, served up some excellent quality.  But there were no carts – we ordered from a menu.  Less fun, but even worse was waiting almost an hour for our food!  It’s never easy in China.  The second place was Tao Tao Ju Restaurant. This was also delicious (though we liked Panxi a tad more).  I did like the self-service counters where I could choose my dim sum.  I didn’t recognize anything in the dessert section so I randomly chose a group of deep fried mini-pastries.  To my surprise, it was filled with a warm, sweetened durian custard.  This was a perfect use of the pungent fruit and I hope I can find it at dim sum restaurants abroad.

Shopping street

Shopping street

Guangzhou alleyway

Guangzhou alleyway

Alligator at the market

Alligator at the market

We walked a bit around the shopping district again peeking into the narrow alleyways.  We passed one food market buzzing with customers and couldn’t resist perusing ourselves.  The Cantonese are known for eating everything and anything and this is definitely the first time I saw alligator at the market. But before long it was nap time again.  Nathan had unfortunately come down with a tough illness that required a lot of rest.

Naan at Nur Bostan

Naan at Nur Bostan

Spiced rice and dumplings

Spiced rice and dumplings

Gate of one of the world's oldest mosques

Gate of one of the world’s oldest mosques

But it was our one year travel anniversary!  So Nathan mustered the energy to go to a special restaurant.  Nur Bostan serves Uyghur cuisine from the far western regions of China.  The culture and food there are more closely linked to Central Asia than mainstream Chinese.  One of the biggest differences is their Muslim religion, meaning they don’t eat the pork found so ubiquitously in the rest of the country.  There is a longstanding Muslim community in Guangzhou that I found fascinating.  The people themselves, in their dress and face, looked like a mix of east and west.  We even went to visit the city’s mosque, one of the oldest in the world being founded in the 600s, shortly after Islam was founded.  As for the food, we enjoyed some fluffy naan, hummus, juicy lamb kababs and spiced rice.  An excellent way to celebrate our travel-veresary!

Wuzhanji

Wuzhanji

In the morning we fought for a table at Wuzhanji, recommended for its cheung fan (steamed rice noodle rolls) and congee.  The woman taking orders didn’t even want to deal with us but we persisted and were rewarded with some springy noodles.  We also got some congee with offal.  I think this was her version of revenge but little did she know we actually like offal.  So there.

Chen Clan Association Hall

Chen Clan Association Hall

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Unbelievable carving on a minuscule piece of ivory

Now I wasn’t expecting much more from the Chen Clan Association Hall than an atmospheric old building.  But lucky for us it now houses a recently completed folk art museum.  My favorite piece was in the ivory carving room.  There was a piece of ivory no bigger than a grain of rice with Chinese characters carved in red.  Seriously, these characters were too small for the eye to see.  You had to look through a magnifying glass.  What unbelievable skill on the part of the carvers!!  I will never look the same way at those fairground stands that advertise writing your name on a grain of rice.  They don’t even know what they’re up against.

Canton Tower

Canton Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

Four Seasons Hotel atrium at the IFC Tower

From the old to the very new, we rode the subway to Guangzhou’s version of Canary Wharf.  Skyscrapers are under construction at every turn but we were here to see two in particular.  The first was the IFC Tower, the tenth tallest building in the world.  It was just finished last fall and feels brand spanking new.  We made our way to the glamorous Four Seasons Hotel lobby on the 70th floor for views over the city.  Too bad it was cloudy!  From the IFC Tower we could see the Canton Tower twisting into the sky.  Pretty spectacular stuff.

Night market crowds

Night market crowds

At night we braved some crowds at a pedestrian shopping street hosting a flower market for the new year.  We then hopped on the subway to our hotel.  At the stroke of midnight we were treated to a cacauphony of fireworks set off by local families (the city did not put on a show).  These were bigger than some of the shows we’ve seen in SF!  We had a great vantage point from our hotel room on the 7th floor of an apartment building.  Our new year’s day (the third in our trip so far after Mumbai and Hanoi!) was spent eating dim sum, reading and sharing a simple noodle dinner with the young hotel manager.  It was a good way to gear up for our next destination, one of the best cities in the world, Hong Kong.

One Night in Bangkok (by Nathan)

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the Devil walking next to me

Bangkok, Oriental setting
And the city don’t know what the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world
In a show with everything but Yul Brynner

Time flies, doesn’t seem a minute
Since the Tirolean Spa had the chess boys in it
All change, don’t you know that when you
Play at this level, there’s no ordinary venue

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a God in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

by Murray Head

Bowls and bowls of boat noodles

Bowls and bowls of boat noodles

Yes, almost by circumstance I decided to relive one of my favorite 80’s songs, Murray Heads’s “One Night in Bangkok”. Our chess match involved all the the intricacies and intelligence of maneuvering around the world and the reward was a day to enjoy Thai food. Of all places to have a one-day layover, Bangkok is a delicious place to be stuck with twenty-four hours to burn. The epicenter of Thai food is guaranteed to tantalize with vibrant flavors and leave the mouth panting for more while the stomach pleads for it all to stop. Thus, as expected, we spent our last day in Thailand eating, walking and eating a bit more and fulfilling everything that 4feet2mouths can be.

Roadside golden Buddha

Roadside golden Buddha

The challenge of securing a Chinese visa is that proof-of-entrance and exit is required. Thus, six months ago we took a stab-in-the-dark and booked a flight to Kunming from Bangkok. In hindsight it would have been slightly easier and cheaper to just bus over from Northern Laos, but we would have had to fake a flight at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Thus When we finally returned to Thailand, it felt very natural, and it was welcoming and exciting to be in a place that we had explored and enjoyed six weeks ago. Within 10 minutes of our hotel we were graced by a hundred Buddhas that were humbly meditating the streets and awaiting to be purchased and set into future Thai temples.

Green curry and crab soufflé at Krua Apsorn

Green curry and crab soufflé at Krua Apsorn

The deliciously simple miang khanna at Krua Apsorn

The deliciously simple miang khanna at Krua Apsorn

There was really one destination that we had in mind, Thanon Dinson. This two block street is all that you need to know for excellent Thai food. There is everything from noodles, barbecue, soups and rice dishes; and everything is excellent. Our first place was Krua Apsorn. this mid-range restaurant serves mostly central Thai cuisine of very high quality. We ordered a fish ball and baby eggplant green curry and crab soufflé. The star of the restaurant was the extremely simple and fresh appetizer called miang khanna. A platter arrived with lime wedges, ginger, chopped onion, peanuts, pork cracklings, dried shrimp, betel leaves and a tamarind sauce. We rolled up some of everything and took a bite that exploded with textures and flavors. We will definitely be recreating this one at home!

Boat noodle perfection

Boat noodle perfection

Literally across the street and to the right a little bit is a delicious spot for boat noodles. This is the birth place of our “dirty noodles” concept that the best soup shops are fast, cheap, and deserve with people. They pulled a couple bowls off the stack and added the noodle thickness of our choice. It was up to us to make it special with some added chili, vinegar and a dash of sugar.

Tranquil canal on Dipsom Road

Tranquil canal on Dipsom Road

We crossed the street again I and enjoyed the serene canal. It was a really warm, but peaceful day. We could not expect anything better on our last day in Thailand.

Colorful Thai traffic jam

Colorful Thai traffic jam

Riding the canal boat

Riding the canal boat

The Klong San Sap canal boat public transit in Bangkok is wonderful. There is an elevated rail and plently of colorful taxies, but the canal system is the more fun way to get around. We did not get to experience this on our first trip. But this time we conveniently found ourselves making trips from Old town to near the MBK mall. We loaded onto the thirty person boat and it roared down the twenty foot wide canal. At first I wondered why the ticket operator was wearing a helmet, then suddenly the whole roof of the boat collapsed swiftly to clear the bridge ahead. They had actually designed the boat so that the roof was hinged to drop the height three feet and at these brief moments the driver maneuvered the boat peering through the three inches of visible windshield. We gripped our seat for the first few times, but ultimately the experience proved enjoyable and entertaining.

The must-visit Thanon Mahannop fish soup shop.

The must-visit Thanon Mahannop fish soup shop.

Delectable Thai fish soup

Delectable Thai fish soup

Can you imagine the anxiety of eating your last Thai meal? What if you knew you could not have Thai food for eight weeks?  Funny, yes, but we took this very serious. Our final morning in Bangkok was spent roaming the streets for something that might sustain our memory of Thai cuisine.  We scoured the streets to find something that would be sour, spicy, sweet, salty and savory. Our first thought was the fabulous pad thai at Thip Sanai on 313 Thanon Mahachai, but it was closed! Thus, we drifted to our trusty Thanon Dinso. What we discovered was one of the best meals of all Thailand. We peered up a side street called Thanon Mahannop, just west of Thanon Dinso. We found a small crowd of people outside a tiny restaurant on the south side of the street. We snagged a table and pointed for two bowls of what everyone else was having…some sort of stew. The bowls arrived with a red broth packed with lemongrass and chunks of fish. This was the most intensely flavored wonderful dish. Any discussion of it and I watch Carmen lick her lips remembering the flavors. The stew was spicy, the fish tender and the sour lemongrass potent. This was an awesome find for our last Thai meal.

And just as quick as One Night in Bangkok came into existence, our layover was finished. Backpacks were cinched tight and thrown over our shoulders once more.  China, our final frontier, loomed just to the north.

Wat Hopping in Chiang Mai (by Carmen)

Chiang Mai, the square city

Chiang Mai, the square city (photo credit: artandcultureasia.com)

The city of Chiang Mai was born on Thursday the 8th day of waxing moon, 1296AD, at 4:00am, in the year of the monkey. This we learned at the city’s history museum, which explained that Chiang Mai, like people, has certain personality traits as well periods of good and bad health. I liked this personification of cities and I knew Chiang Mai and I would get along just fine. First of all, I liked its shape. Not many cities have such a strong square moat, with remainders of its crumbling city wall still presiding over residents.

Khao Kha Mu

Khao Kha Mu

And, of course, there was the delicious food. Fortunately for us, Julia and Jonathan had been in Chiang Mai just before we got there and provided some noteworthy recommendations. Two were just north of the city gate, at the Chang Puek market. Recognizable by their cowboy hats, the pork choppers at the khao kha mu (stewed pork over rice) stall are working non-stop to fill the mountain of orders. We joined the crowds, got our plate and doused it with a sweet spicy chili sauce on the table. The slightly sweet pork mingled perfectly with the tangy sauce.

Pad thai stall

Pad thai stall

Pad thai close up

Pad thai close up

At the same market, look for the lone man towards the end pumping out pad thai. It was perfect. His pad Thai uses good tamarind paste so is more sour than the ones I’ve eaten in the States. The “original” mix he offered involved tofu, eggs, and dried shrimp. Many thanks to Mark at the Travelfish Thailand blog for pointing out this market!

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Phan Tao

Wat Monthian

Wat Monthian

We were not in Chiang Mai for food alone. As the capital of the Lanna kingdom for centuries, Chiang Mai was also a spiritual center leaving a legacy of wats. Every street seems to have two or three. Some are more famous than others, such as the dark teak wood Wat Phan Tao. But all of them have a beauty to them. We really enjoyed Wat Monthian, on the northern border of the old town.

Buddha presiding over Wat Chedi Luang

Buddha presiding over Wat Chedi Luang

Flags inside Wat Chedi Luang

Flags inside Wat Chedi Luang

The namesake chedi

The namesake chedi

Another one of the well known wats is Chedi Luang. It’s large golden Buddha had a string attached to his finger that wound its way around the temple interior. From the string, people hung flags with images from the Chinese zodiac. It was a peaceful place to kneel below the flags, on the thick carpet, and quietly observing people coming into pray. Afterwards, we went to the back of the wat to see the oldest chedi (sacred site usually in a mound or pyramid shape) in Chiang Mai.

Buns!

Buns!

The next day was an important one. It was Nathan’s turn to celebrate his birthday! So what does one do in Chiang Mai to celebrate? Take a bike ride to a nearby wat of course. But wait! On the way we spied a shop selling a variety of colorful steamed buns. I’m used to these being filled by Chinese style pork or red bean paste, but these were different. There was everything from taro to spinach and cheese filled buns. We opted for pandanus and Thai pork buns. They were both good but the latter was revelatory! The lemongrass in the filling was so good and I was soon dreaming up ways to market these fusion bun treats.

White chedis at Wat Suan Dok

White chedis at Wat Suan Dok

Close up chedi

Close up chedi

We did eventually make it to the Wat Suan Dok. It had a number of white chedis for some fun photos.

Huen Phen

Huen Phen

To add a bit of surprise to Nathan’s birthday I researched a place for a good but laid back lunch. Huen Phen fit the bill and offered some great eats in casual surroundings. My favorite was the amazing Thai sausage. I had read about it online and I think it lived up to the hype. It was super tender and well spiced. Another great dish was the khao soi, a curry based soup complimented with pickled veggies to sprinkle in. We even came back the next day, when the little khanom jeen nam ngiaw place we had looked up ended up being closed. Huen Phen’s version lifted our spirits with its rich pork broth, which Nathan likened to Mexican posole.

After our large birthday lunch, we biked our way over to a Thai massage parlor. They are everywhere and hard to resist! Our muscles got twisted and stretched into loose submission. I looked over to see Nathan’s brutish looking masseuse pulling his arms back with all her might while Nathan winced. As we were getting dressed we realized that our masseuses were former prisoners that had participated in a job training program. That explains a few things…

Happy birthday Nathan!

Happy birthday Nathan!

And then there was cake. Not far from our hostel was the Fern Forest Cafe. It turns out the Thai love their cakes so we had plenty to choose from. We opted for a coconut cake with fresh coconut strips lying on top and a brownie with ice cream.

Mango sticky rice

Mango sticky rice

Night market lanterns

Night market lanterns

But when it’s your birthday, you can eat all the dessert you want. So that night we bought a final mango sticky rice at the Saturday market. Chiang Mai is particularly known for it’s Sunday market, so I was under the impression that the Saturday one would be rather small. I was completely wrong. It took us two hours to walk through the crowds while checking out the merchandise! Amazingly, there weren’t many vendors selling the same thing.

Dumplings at Sompetch

Dumplings at Sompetch

The following morning Nathan went on a nice healthy run while I slept in (this is usually the way it goes). On his way back he noticed people fighting for tables at a nearby restaurant. That was all it took for us to make it our choice for breakfast. And it was a good one! We enjoyed a variety of savory and delicious dumplings as well as some congee.

Temple roof outline at dusk

Temple roof outline at dusk

Our last day was filled with visiting the city museum and then the mother of Chiang Mai’s markets – the Sunday Walking Street. We were prepared for this one because of our experience at the Saturday market. As expected it was huge and glorious with shoppers shuffling en masse down the main drag of the old town. After perusing the goods and soaking in the vibrant atmosphere it was time for us to catch a bus. Goodbye Chiang Mai, it was wonderful to meet you!

Num Num ‘Nam in Saigon (by Carmen)

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

We were especially excited for our first visit to Vietnam.  I have always enjoyed the fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine.  Crunchy herbs are a staple added to soups, noodles, eggs, sandwiches…everything really.  Overall, what we read and heard about Vietnam indicated that it was a country full of people who love to eat well.  And Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has an abundance of locally brewed beer.  In short, our kind of place.  Armed with recommendations from our friend Tran and the Gastronomy blog, we were ready to take on Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon).

A beautiful bahn mi sandwich

A beautiful bành mí sandwich

Bahn mi essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

Bành mí essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

On our first afternoon we wound through the park outside of our hotel. They happened to be holding a culinary festival, complete with wok masters dancing to some club beats while stir frying away.  We only paused to look because we were on a mission to get the best bành mí in the city.  We found it at Bành Mí Huynh Hoa, a well known and consistently crowded storefront.  Imagine six people stationed around a table rapidly chopping veggies and peppers while four others are assembling sandwiches at light speed.  There is no counter to queue at.  You simply nudge your way through the crowds towards one of the sandwich makers and get your order in.  You then hungrily watch them make your sandwich, wrap it a piece of paper, place it in a bag and finally hand it over.  And it was awesome.  The pickled cucumber and carrot blended perfectly with the mix of pâtés and meat, all on a fresh hot bread roll and with just the right amount of hot pepper slices.  Our first taste of Vietnam was already winning us over.

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Next up on our list of Vietnamese favorites was phở, a comforting and delicious soup.  We selected Phở Hoa on Pasteur to do the honors. My beef pho came ready to be dressed up with basil, mint, bean sprouts and lots of lime, all of which are placed on the table for me.  The springy rice noodles were perfect.  We didn’t talk much as we enjoyed our soup among the many other patrons.

Fried chicken and garlic rice

Fried chicken and garlic rice

The perfect spring roll

The perfect spring roll

Over the days we followed the recommendations to more great eats.  This included an excellent fried chicken with garlic rice at Xoi Che. Then there was the fried spring roll which you wrap with herbs and lettuce and dip in a spicy sweet sauce at Banh Xeo 46A.  We even found the no name food stand with a blue awning that served rice and banana steamed in banana leaves and topped with coconut milk.  It was all just so good!

Chinese statue at Jade Emporer Pagoda

Chinese statue at Jade Emperer Pagoda

Amid the snacks, we pagoda hopped around the city.  Our favorite was the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in 1909.  It was small and intimate and loaded with various statues representing demons and spirits.  I watched quietly as people prayed with their incense.  One man was even using oracle sticks to get some answers.  We had a prayer too – to find delicious seafood.  Fortunately, it was answered.

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

At Quan 94, we tucked into a delicious soft shell crab in tamarind sauce.  This place smelled wonderfully of garlic such that my mouth watered as soon as I walked in.

Spicy pepper crab

Spicy pepper crab

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

More seafood was to be had a little further out from the city center where we found a collection of street cafes specializing in shell fish.  This time we got crab claws in a spicy pepper rub accompanied by blood cockles covered in tamarind and mussels with green garlic. Everything was amazing and well worth the trip to Saigon’s district four

Banh beo hue breakfast

Banh beo hue breakfast

Back in the city center for breakfast, at Thai Binh Market, we were aggressively accosted by the food vendors.  We finally settled on one with a large crowd around it. The stall happened to be selling banh beo hue, a variety of small rice dumplings and cakes doused with more spicy sweet sauce.

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Breakfast was complete with streetside coffee.  As we sipped our brews sweetened with condensed milk, we watched the owner and his friend attempting to revive their prehistoric scooter.  They pushed each other up and down the sidewalk and we sat laughing with their wives each time they almost swerved into a tree or hole in the sidewalk.

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

While we walked around the city, we kept spotting a tall skyscraper in the distance. It was the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building at 68 stories.  We paid for tickets to the glamorous sky deck for vast views over the sprawling city.  While I was up there I kept thinking about the fact that this was a war zone 40 years ago.  Now, I was looking down at the busy city streets from an ultra-modern air conditioned perch high in the sky.  It amazes me how resilient cities and people are.

Banh can

Banh can

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Our glamorous sky deck had to be followed up by a swanky restaurant, which we were treated to by our friend’s relative.  It was our first taste of banh can, which are little egg cups cooked over a fire.  But the star of the show was a salad plate lined with slivers of a small silvery fish lining the edge, all topped with crisp garlic.  All the sauces and herbs that accompanied our dishes delivered all the fresh flavors we love about vietnamese food.  We were also very grateful that we were able to meet up with a local for an insiders perspective.

Broken rice with pork pie

Broken rice with pork pie

Ok, one more breakfast. This one was called com tam, or broken rice.  I believe they grind the rice until it is a very short grain.  This makes the texture a little more like couscous.  Served with a slice of pork casserole, we found it to be very comforting.

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Wow, this post was a little hard to write!  There was so many good eats it turned into more of a food diary than travelogue.  But I suppose that was our true experience of Saigon.  A sort of city wide restaurant hop where we would order small dishes to save room for the next great find around the corner.  Amid the tangle of traffic and electricity towers there are some great opportunities to find quiet pagodas, savory street snacks and boisterous beer halls.  And the snowmen, snow flakes and santas around town reminded us the Christmas was just around the corner, even if it was 30C outside.  The heat was intense and we were craving some cooler mountain air so we bid adieu to Saigon and wound our way into the mountains in Dalat.

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Eating Like a Local In Phnom Penh (by Nathan)

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Nothing demonstrates local culture more than the food people eat.  Yes, there is dance, language and tradition, but the day-to-day survival of humans depends on the consumption of local cuisine.  The food of a region shows the struggle and the progress of the people.  So when our bus stopped at a roadside stand and every Cambodian huddled around one stall I decided to get whatever the woman was selling. It turns out she was selling crickets, freshly fried and crispy crickets.  I watched as little girls shared giggles of delight with their grandmas.  My turn came and I was suddenly confronted with a choice: sesame seed or green onion and diced chilies.  I sampled each with everyone staring and I ordered the spicier one.  Imagine the best barbecue potato chip you have ever had, I’m talking caramelized onion, sweet potatoes; these were better!  Excuse me, a leg just got caught in my teeth.

Sunset Phnom Penh

Sunset Phnom Penh

Our bus bounced along and the rice fields disappeared with the growth of a denser city and crowded streets.  We arrived in Phnom Penh, we checked into our hotel and started walking.  There is a nice and peaceful riverside sidewalk that is wonderful for sunset walks.  We passed by the elaborate palace with its spectacular silhouette.  We ended the night with a rooftop cocktail, a great start to a new city.

Central market soup

Central market soup

Sticky rice snacks

Sticky rice snacks

I think my favorite part of every city is the market.  Every village or metropolis has some way for farmers, butchers and cooks to sell their life’s work.  Our first destination was Phsar Thmei, the central market.  After some confused meandering through stall after stall of clothing, watches, beauty products and mobile phones we finally found the hawker center.  We sat down at two stools and two heaping steamy bowls were placed in front of us.  We then mimed our way into getting extra limes and some iced tea.  It was a breakfast for travel champions.  Our savory soup lady shared her stall with a sweet soup lady.  We ordered some rice, mung beans and red beans doused with coconut and condensed milks.  Another woman was wrapping sweet fillings with sticky rice and banana leaves.  Too full, we ordered some to snack on later.

Cambodian National Museum garden

Cambodian National Museum garden

The National Museum of Cambodia has beautiful traditional architecture surrounding  a well-kept garden.  The artifacts are mostly from Angkor temples and show a subtle progression of Buddha statues over time.  The brief video that recreated ancient Angkor was excellent, but the explanations of the rest of the museum was rather poor.  We really wanted to visit the palace, but the gates were locked shut as the country mourns the death (from old age) of their leader.

S-21 Concentration Camp

S-21 Concentration Camp

Cambodia has had a tumultuous and horrendous history.  When they finally gained independence from France in the 1950’s the country was still led my a monarchy.  This lasted until 1970 when a coup overthrew the king, but set off a civil war across the country.  A handful of Paris educated men were excited for communism and they created the Khmer Rouge.  They took control with promises of equality and better living for all.  The Khmer rouge insisted that the country cease all outside influence and return to agrarian means of living.  Thousands were forced to leave the cities and the educated were decimated.

One of the more sad experiences of this entire trip was that we visited Toul Sleng, a former school tuned into the S-21 concentration camp and the gateway for over 15,000 murders.  The barbed wire, tiny cells, torturing devices and meticulous photo documentation are all in tact and graphically showing one of the low points in human existence.  It was the North Vietnamese that eventually stopped this monstrosity.  These were the same Vietnamese that the U.S. was fighting.  And since the enemies of our enemies are…um…friends, the Khmer Rouge went into hiding with their warfare being supplied and funded by the U.S.  Millions of American mines were placed into Cambodian soil.  Two million mines still exist in Cambodia, they are armed and sensitive to the unlucky farmer, kid or animal that stumbles upon one.  There is some amazing and brave work being done out there to identify and disarm these minefields.  I encourage any visitor to Cambodia to visit the mining museum in Siem Reap and S-21 in Phnom Penh to gain perspective on modern warfare.

Russian market butcher

Russian market butcher

It is not surprising that after all this turmoil, that Cambodian cuisine remains quite simple compared to their neighbors.  The extremism of the Khmer Rouge appears to have had had an affect of diluting and censoring the food as well.  The flavors of Cambodian cuisine are rustic with a focus on fresh, and sometimes raw vegetables with a nuance of influence from Vietnam, Thailand and China.  We went to the Russian Market for another, but different noodle breakfast.  This market was less organized under rickety wood construction with mounds of vegetables next to cleavers slamming down through bone and flesh of fresh meat.  The market was hot and hazy with humidity; we hovered over our noodles and we were already sweating at 9am.

Skewered delights, note the "Angry Bird" kebab

Skewered delights, note the “Angry Bird” kebab

Night market dessert

Night market dessert

We attempted to stay cool with some 50cent draft beers, but the heat was persistent.  We ventured back onto the streets in search of the night market.  We found twenty stalls selling the same barbecued and fried skewers.  Why don’t they diversify? We sat cross-legged on a central mat with some bitter melon, chicken, short-ribs and sugar cane juice.  Although tempted, we did not try the “angry bird” meat skewers.  For dessert Carmen had banana and coconut pudding and I had shaved ice over various jellies and egg yolk dumplings with condensed milk over the top.

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Our final morning in Phnom Penh was rushed as we embarked on a bus to Vietnam.  With five minutes to spare, we squeezed between the tuk tuk drivers and sat on the tiny stool that rested a mere eight inches above the ground.  We ordered the only thing she was serving- a plate of rice with some dried and re-grilled pork and a fried egg.  A couple spoonfuls of diced chillies and they all smiled at us in astonishment.  We are getting used to this whole eating like a local thing.

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