5.09.2017

Eating in Vietnam: a food diary

Bun cha breakfast and spring rolls (from 27 Dao Duy Tu)

Last fall when Jasmine and I began talking about a potential Vietnam trip, I started getting excited about all the food we would eat. A big inspiration for the trip was the caving trek, but as long as I could get in a few bowls of bun cha and pho, I was down. In seven days, we did our best to sample as many dishes as we could. Here goes!
Egg coffee from Cafe Giang, the place it was purportedly invented 

It's no secret that I'm not a coffee drinker, but I'm always game to try anything when traveling, including the intriguing-sounding "egg coffee" that graces many of Hanoi's cafes. It was just the perfect drink for me, as the creaminess/custard quality of the egg masked the bitter taste of coffee beans. If you're a coffee purist, you might scoff at this creation, but it certainly provided a nice buzz of energy nonetheless. As the story goes, egg coffee came about in Hanoi during the mid-20th century when milk was scarce and egg provided a creamier (and tastier, if you ask me) alternative. It's stuck around and you can find many egg coffee cafes in Hanoi. It comes in an espresso size cup which is then placed in a slightly wider and more shallow cup filled with hot water to keep its temperature warm.

One dish of from our multi course dinner at Koto

Koto (Know One Teach One) is a social enterprise founded by a Vietnamese-Australian fellow whose aim is to empower at-risk and underprivileged youth by giving them useful training in hospitality so that they can improve their lives. We enjoyed a satisfying multi-course prix fixe meal from appetizers to dessert.



Drinks at Sofitel's Bamboo Bar, a beautiful colonial-style outdoor bar with wooden ceiling fans, dim lighting, and strong drinks

Lunch at State Run Food Shop 37 (ration tickets)

State Run Food Shop 37 models itself after the government-run restaurants during the austerity period beginning in 1976. You purchase ration coupons (as seen in the picture below) which go towards your meal. 
Clockwise from top: interior of the restaurant; the tables were made out of repurposed Singer sewing machines (!); the exterior of the restaurant 
Lunch: fried morning glory (our "birth" flower, haha), spring rolls, rice, etc.
 Beef pho and fried dough at Pho 10, a no frills, very efficient corner restaurant our Airbnb host recommend to us
Breakfast on deck on our Halong Bay cruise

We had some time to kill (before heading to the train station) after we got back to Hanoi, so we went to another place for egg coffee. Not quite as good as Cafe Giang, but still did the trick.

Next stop? Central Vietnam (Phong Nha National park area) where we spent the first night in Phong Nha town. The following day we started our two day cave trekking adventure (for more, read Jasmine's amazing account on her blog here). As we entered our first cave, it was impossible to miss the lunch spread that was laid out across a tarp. We rolled our own spring rolls, made banh mi, peeled tiny, sweet-as-can-be oranges and capped off our meal with Choco pie, a Vietnamese delicacy. ;)

Our clothes at the campsite 

At the end of the first day, we went for a quick dip in the ice cold waters at our campsite, and hung our muddy clothes to "dry" before the following day's trek. (Spoiler alert: one night in February is not nearly long (or warm) enough to render clothes dry.) We meandered around the camp site, set up our sleeping bags, and got ready for our group dinner. 

Pre-dip!
Brrr!

The Oxalis cooks were talented- whipping up everything from grilled meats cooked over open coals for dinner to homemade crêpes in the morning.
Video of cooking in action


Just a sampling of our amazing dinner cooked outside: homemade French fries, tofu topped with flavorful tomato sauce, rice, grilled eggplant, chicken, soup, steamed greens, delicious cabbage. They also gave us local "moonshine" aka rice wine that could knock your socks off. 


Guava with salt dip and jackfruit for dessert


Day two of trek: Breakfast consisted of fresh crêpes with lime, sugar, & banana, piping hot noodles, assorted tropical fruit, and hot ginger tea before we embarked on the more challenging trek of the two days 

The trek was an experience from start to finish and it was the the perfect blend of adventure, unknowns, and challenges without seeming impossible. By the end of the second day, we were exhausted but felt like we'd accomplished so much. Back at base camp, we showered off two days worth of caked-on mud (quite possibly one of the best showers of my life) and packed up our stuff before the Oxalis van took us down the dirt road to a local family's home for one final meal as a group. We cracked open cans of refreshing cold Coke as we slurped on mi quang, a savory soup of thick noodles, tomatoes, tofu, crushed peanuts, herbs, limes, and chili. According to Bao, our jack-of-all-trades trek leader, the dish is originally from Hoi An but served in a smaller bowl there. 

(Aside: As delicious as the bowl pictured above was, it was quite likely the culprit of Jasmine's intense food poisoning which she had to endure over the course of our 10+ hr train ride back to Hanoi!!!)



A few other memorable food experiences with sadly either no pictures or address (or either):

  • Milky tea outside a random cafe in Hanoi
  • Gin and tonic on the terrace outside Tadioto, a cute bar in Hanoi
  • Beer corner (Bia corner) in Hanoi for more G and Ts
  • Delicious beef noodle soup at an makeshift place on the sidewalk near Beer Corner. No sooner than I could finish the bowl did the cops shut down the place and make the owner dismantle his impromptu "restaurant"
  • Sidewalk Banh mi at an inconspicuous food cart in Hanoi
  • Delicious strawberry smoothie across the street from said unmarked banh mi shop
  • Vietnamese coffee at Kafe village 
  • Drinks at Avalon BBQ rooftop over Hoang Kiem Lake (drinks are nothing to write home about but the view is quite pleasant)
  • Happy hour (buy one, get one free wine) during our Halong Bay cruise with 60-something Europeans
  • Banana peanut butter smoothie at Bamboo Cafe in downtown Phong Nha
  • White wine in front of river at our Oxalis guesthouse in Phong Nha (not memorable but it was locally made, from Dalat)
  • Tasty BBQ dinner at Oxalis guesthouse's Expedition Cafe

A few random, non-food observations:

The address plates in Hanoi were identical to those in Paris, a random remnant of colonization? 
Constant smog and haze blanketed Hanoi's skies so that we never saw a clear day
Motorbike drivers carried the randomest of items including extremely bulky, full-size trees
Little stools are the way to go for sidewalk eating- great for a short person like me!



And finally- many streets in Hanoi are  dedicated to selling solely one item, i.e. Mirror Street (pictured above), Sunglass Street, etc.


What an adventure. Vietnam, I hope to return!

4.19.2017

Flavio al Velavevodetto in Rome

Flavio al Velavevodetto is an experience from start to finish. The restaurant is located in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood, which was just across the river from where were staying, and the setting is beautiful. If you're dining there in the summer, I recommend the patio which is surrounded by flowers. Each of the pasta dishes we had was superb including the summery tomato one above. You won't regret their take on cacio e pepe as well.
We wanted to try a Lazio wine and the lore of "Est! Est! Est!" always intrigued me, but we were a little disappointed in the one above. The first bottle tasted corked and the servers agreed, but the second bottle wasn't much better. I'd heard that service here could be hit or miss and while some of the people were a bit stuffy, we had an enjoyable dinner. Reservations are essential so call ahead.

12.30.2016

Copenhagen Guide

Necessary attire for my free walking tour


Gearing up for an outdoor concert at the museum

Moving exhibit at the Louisiana Museum

Top-notch yogurt at my home-away-from-hostel, Kompa'9

Coming from Tunisia this past August, Copenhagen was a complete change (including the unseasonably dreary weather) but I embraced the Scandinavian city and tried to find my inner hygge!*

Where I stayed: Copenhagen Downtown Hostel
PROS: good location, nightly family dinner for a nominal fee, luggage storage for a fee
CONS: very big and informal, pricey

Good places to eat/drink
  • Kompa'9- quaint breakfast/lunch spot for decked-out yogurt, good coffee/tea, delicious unfiltered apple juice, friendly service, and free wi-fi, all in a very Scandinavian pinterest-esque setting
  • Torvehallerne Market for smørrebrød, aka open-faced sandwiches, at Hallernes
  • Streetfood on Paper Island for great international food (I heard from several people that it may be closing so get there quick)
  • Ruby for excellent craft cocktails. I walked past the place twice thinking I was lost. The signage to this place is very discreet- if the sign says you're at the Georgian embassy, you've come to the right place. Just take the first right once inside the building, sit at the bar, and watch the mixologists do their magic.

Things to do:
  • Nyhavn- walk around the harbor and take in the picturesque buildings
  • Louisiana Museum- this may be one of my favorite museums ever, as the entire grounds make up the museum and there is art and beauty to take in whether you are inside at an exhibition, or outside enjoying the seaside, sculptures, and live music that I was lucky to enjoy. (Yayoi Kusama's "Gleaming Lights of the Souls" is a favorite exhibition.)
  • Tivoli Gardens- has bragging rights as the world's second oldest amusement park (the other one also in Denmark). Come here to test your fear of heights, listen to live music, stroll through the gardens, and relive your childhood.

Interesting observation:

  • *On my free walking tour, I learned more about the danish concept of "hygge" which very loosely translates to cosiness (although it seems difficult to translate). Visit Denmark says that hygge "is as Danish as pork roast and it goes far in illuminating the Danish soul. In essence, hygge means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. There's nothing more hygge than sitting round a table, discussing the big and small things in life." For whatever reason, hygge seems to be all the rage now thanks to a recent New York Times article.

Torvehallerne

Can't go to Denmark without having smørrebrød

Rooftop views in Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens madness- somehow I thought getting on this torture device would be fun

Craft cocktails at Ruby
On the left: a "postie fizz" containing homemade rhubarb syrup, geranium leaves, blanca rum, lemon juice, egg white, and soda water
On the right: a "green bees" made up of pisco, thyme, sorrel, and honey

10.20.2016

Cooking Class in Malaga



It's no secret that I love food tours and have written about my positive experiences with them here, here, here, and here. This past August, I really wanted to do a food tour with Devour Malaga, the same company I used for my amazing tours in Madrid and Barcelona. Unfortunately, due to the Malaga feria (a crazy shit show of a "festival" which merits its own post), no tours were operating that week. After a little online sleuthing, I was happy to discover a company called Spain Food Sherpas that was offering a tapas cooking class so I quickly signed up along with three of my travel buddies.

The cooking school is located in the funky art district of Malaga and we were led there by Mayte, a Spain Food Sherpas representative. The kitchen is open, airy, and spacious, and there were multiple stations which allowed each group to contibute to the cooking process. Before starting the cooking portion of the class, however, we enjoyed an extra virgin olive oil tasting of different Spanish oils ranging from grassy to peppery. 

A wonderful mother-son duo were our teachers for the day, showing us how to prepare fresh gazpacho, prawns al pil-pil, Spanish omelette, and meatballs with a traditional almond sauce. I really enjoyed how hands-on the class was, with plenty of opportunity for interaction with the teachers. The highlight was sitting at the table and trying our dishes, sipping on refreshing local white wine from Antequera, and enjoying the company of the other participants, who were from England/Ireland and Germany. The day after the class, we received the recipes in our inbox and I plan on making everything soon. I highly recommend Spain Food Sherpas if you're looking for a food experience in Malaga!




Video of gambas sizzling in action

East coast style subs


Growing up with a mother from Massachusetts, I spent my fair share of vacations in the state. One of the best things about returning to her oceanside hometown is the obligatory visit to Victoria's Subs in in Hingham (the next town over). It's a no-frills joint and one of many excellent sub shops that dot New England towns all the way up to Maine. Locals know to call in their orders ahead of time and I have always the same thing waiting for me: roast beef with provolone, lettuce, tomato, onions, "hots", oil, and spices. Cape Cod potato chips are a must as well. The subs at Victoria's are so good that I, along with the rest of their large clientele, put up with the snarling, grumpy man behind the counter. You'll want to do the same should you find yourself in these parts.

Victoria's Subs is located at 345 Rockland Street in Hingham, MA.
Our last visit was in April during a snowstorm. Ah.....Massachusetts...

10.13.2016

Roasted salmon glazed with brown sugar and mustard


Weeknight meals sometimes stump me- I want something tasty, nutritious, and easy to prepare. So when I saw this five-ingredient New York Times recipe for roasted salmon glazed with brown sugar and Dijon mustard, I was sold. It's extremely simple to prepare but packs a lot of flavor. Next time you're overwhelmed on a Wednesday evening, try it out. And here's an added bonus- clean-up is a cinch as well!

10.04.2016

New Year's Eve in Boracay


Boracay seemed like the place to spend New Year's Eve, and a good place to get partying out of our system before heading on to calmer Palawan. Our reveling had to be put on hold, however, as our AirAsia flight was delayed for about 4 hrs in Manila. Funnily enough, I had spent a lot of time researching whether to fly into Kalibo Airport or Caticlan, the closer one to Boracay. I eventually decided on Kalibo as there were many (cheaper) flights to chose from and I had read that it wasn't uncommon for Caticlan flights to be canceled due to there being only one runway. In the end, even our flight to Kalibo held us up- it seemed as though everyone was going to Boracay for the New Year and the crowds were taking a toll on the airlines. 

Once we arrived at the Kalibo airport, we exited the building and found a stand outside where we bought bus tickets to Caticlan jetty port. The bus ride took a few hours and again at Caticlan, we had to queue up for the small boat to Boracay. Upon docking in Boracay, there are many vans that can take you to your hostel and we were soon at ours, the lovely MNL Beach Hostel Boracay.

Sunset from the hostel roof- beaches on both sides!

Requisite fire throwers on White Beach
We rented a scooter and took it to the northern part of the island where we had the beach (Puka Shell Beach) to ourselves

Filipinos do fireworks in style. We were treated to a long show at midnight.
Beautiful Boracay beach

9.07.2016

Lavaux Vineyard Terraces in Switzerland

As someone who grew up in the beautiful Pacific NW and is spoiled by mountains, I remember laughing when I recently did a "hike" in my mom's home state of Massachusetts. Around these parts, we'd have called it a hill. Switzerland, however, can hold its own. In addition to the stunning landscapes, the country also offers superb under the radar wines that any oenophile should explore.
The sloped Lavaux Vineyard Terraces are a short train ride from Lausanne and offer stunning views of Lake Geneva. This spot also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the NYTimes picked the Vaud region as one of its 52 places to visit in 2016. I was in Switzerland 3 years ago (yes, it has taken me that long to post about this visit!) in the fall and happened to get to the vineyards at the perfect time when the late October sun bathed the vines in a golden hue.
Golden hour
After walking the vineyards on our own, we crossed under the busy highway and came to Vinorama, a winery. They first presented a beautiful video about the family history of a Lavaux vineyard throughout the seasons and we then did a tasting opting for Switzerland's best whites. I recommend you follow do the same as that is Switzerland's speciality, especially the Chasselas grape.
While Swiss wine should be enjoyed by us all, they only export roughly 2% abroad so be sure and try this unique wine in its original setting.

Tasty meats, bread, and cheese accompanied our wine and after seeing how beautifully the cheese was sliced, we even bought a fancy cheese slicer (you can find them at Globus in Lausanne!).