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My No Good, Very Bad Weekend in Tainan

I’d hate to think that all my current experiences will someday become stories with no point.
-Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

I feel guilty writing this, but I don’t like Tainan at all. Actually, I pretty much loathe the city after my three-day weekend there. I’ve never experienced such a dislike for a place before, and it’s unsettling to admit it, but I hope to never return to Tainan.

Some may say I’m overreacting, but I honestly found few redeeming qualities during my time in the city. And it all started when I booked the high-speed rail (HSR) to Tainan Station only to discover upon arrival that Tainan Station is nowhere near the city. There’s another Tainan Station, which is a half hour on the slow train from Tainan Station. At least when I traveled to Kaohsiung, the station wasn’t called Kaohsiung Station and it was still close to the city center. Hell, the Tainan HSR station wasn’t even on the tourist map available at the information desk.

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

Tainan from the hostel rooftop

In my frustration, I grabbed a bite to eat in the station and managed to forget my umbrella, which just added to my overall feeling about the weekend.

Upon arriving at Tainan Station from Tainan Station, I found an old and crowded train station that didn’t exactly tell me which side of the station to exit (I guessed right). As I walked the 20 minutes down the main street to the Easy Inn Hostel, which I will admit was quite nice, I realized that there wasn’t much to see. More than that, there wasn’t much usable sidewalk as motorbikes and cars use the sidewalks for parking and businesses regularly create barriers to force pedestrians to walk in the busy streets.

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

Most sidewalks looked like this, but worse

It wasn’t just this area of Tainan that had unusable sidewalks–it was everywhere. I came close to just walking on top of the cars and knocking over the motorbikes, but I managed to control my anger in that case.

It's a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

It’s a miracle! A clear sidewalk!

I did not control my anger directed toward drivers who nearly hit me at almost every turn. I’m not just talking about close calls–I had multiple cars and motorbikes run stale red lights as I and others entered crosswalks (and that was in the first few hours of my stay). I even had to move out of the way because a car was about to back over me as I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change–because the driver wasn’t looking, he would have run me over had I not moved. Had that driver’s window been open, I probably would’ve dragged him out and beaten him senseless. As it was, he didn’t seem to give a damn that he wasn’t looking while driving.

I felt safer crossing the streets in Vietnam!

I'm not standing in line for that

I’m not standing in line for that

Then there was the public transportation, or lack thereof. I managed to take two buses–one with some other hostel guests to the far reaches of Tainan and then back to the tourist area (I had to wait 20 minutes for the second bus). However, I saw no buses on my back to the hostel (a good three-mile walk after walking for hours throughout the day). According to the bus schedule, they only run once every 45 minutes or so (assuming they’re on time with the tourist traffic on the one-lane road to the only area that tourists actually go along Anping Rd.).

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

An extended walk due to a lack of public transportation gave me a chance to take some photos

And don’t plan on getting a taxi. On my first night, I headed back around 8 pm and I managed to walk halfway to the hostel before I even saw a taxi. The next day, I walked the whole way back because I saw neither a bus nor a taxi.

Thought I'd go to the night market. This was as close as I got

Thought I’d go to the night market. This was as close as I got

My main goal in Tainan was to eat because everyone claims how wonderful the food in Tainan is. There are few restaurant recommendations online because everyone just eats street food. It’s also a mecca for bubble tea lovers (I find bubble tea disgusting).

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Milkfish dumplings were pretty good

Now, I’m not a great fan of Taiwanese food–I tend to think of it as some of the worst of Chinese cuisine–but I expected better from Tainan. I became disillusioned quickly. I’m fairly certain I developed diabetes over the course of a weekend because almost everything is overly sugary.

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but particularly nothing special

Danzai noodles are pretty good, but nothing special

I had read that zongzi were a specialty in Tainan. I hadn’t had any since I lived in China, but I recall being indifferent to the glutinous rice-filled dumplings. I ordered a huge one from a popular sidewalk restaurant near my hostel only to discover that I find zongzi to be disgusting. It was gooey from the glutinous rice and filled with gritty salted pork and peanuts and covered by a sauce that was sickeningly sweet.

The fabled zongzi

The fabled zongzi

The best meal I had in Tainan was milkfish-filled dumplings. Oddly enough, even these dumplings tasted slightly sweet. I also had rum ice cream, which isn’t exactly a traditional Tainan snack. The danzai noodles and coffin bread (I can’t see that becoming popular in the US with such a name, but it is a cool idea) I had at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles (赤崁擔仔麵) were decent. The restaurant was more interesting than the food. And I had better coffin bread at the night market in Hualien.

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler's Noodles

Coffin bread at Chih Kan Peddler’s Noodles

Some of the touristy area of Tainan seemed interesting, but getting there was miserable. The hostel was excellent–I would highly recommend staying at Easy Inn if it was only in another city. And Beer Bee was a relaxing little bar with excellent beer (Mikkeller Beer Geek series!). The highlight of tourist sites in Tainan was the Anping Tree House (a house engulfed by trees). But I struggle to think of any other redeeming qualities of the city after my three days. mikkeller beer geek

As I said, I feel like I shouldn’t completely write-off the city as I have, but it was just a miserable weekend that I had hoped would be a relaxing escape from Taipei. If someone were to convince me that there is more to the city that I need to see/experience, I may be willing to give it another shot. But, as it stands, I have no interest in ever returning to Tainan.

Anping Tree House

Anping Tree House

Have you ever had an experience that completely turned you off to a travel destination that others rave about? How did you react? 

 

Rum Tasting in Siem Reap

“And together we’re so drunk
We’re making sense. Little
By little, with rum the color
Of a woman’s arm, we’re seeing things—”
Gary Soto, The Jungle Café

On New Year’s Eve, my final evening in Siem Reap before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, I wandered around Pub Street awaiting the celebration. I was exhausted from my 40-mile bike ride around Angkor Wat and in a bit of pain after the Khmer massage that felt more like a $4 muscle-twisting torture session. The heat hadn’t subsided as I walked through the streets in search of dinner, which added to my exhaustion. I was so tired, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner that night.

As it was still too early for the New Year’s revelers to crowd into Pub Street in preparation for performances, fireworks, and who-knows-what-else, I wandered out across the Siem Reap River. It would be my last opportunity to see what this Cambodia tourist city had to offer.

Pub Street ready for New Year's Eve festivities

Pub Street ready for New Year’s Eve festivities

I headed into the Siem Reap Art Center and browsed the stalls filled with tourist souvenirs and local crafts, most of which I couldn’t purchase because I was constantly moving. As I contemplated the souvenirs and food and drinks nearby, I noticed a stall full of liquor. I was invited in to try samples of Georges Rhum Arrangé, rums infused with local flavors; they had 10 flavors in all. These rums were infused to the point that it was unrecognizable as rum to people used to the likes of Captain Morgan and Bacardi. It was nothing like the Abuelo rum I bought in Panama.georges rhum arrange

The first I had was cinnamon, which was strong. I like cinnamon, so this was a good drink for me–it would be great in a dark & stormy. I didn’t enjoy the mango flavor as much because the fruit overpowered the rum, but I could see its usefulness in cocktails.

georges rhum

Georges’ son gave me more than enough samples

After tasting a few of the flavors, I was convinced to go visit his father at Georges Rhumerie Restaurant, which had only been open for two months. They even paid for my tuk-tuk to the restaurant, which was down some dark streets (definitely not the place to walk, even if it wasn’t that far). When I arrived, I met three people, two of whom were the owner and an employee.

Georges Rhumerie Restaurant

Georges Restaurant

Despite being full from dinner, I ordered a light appetizer to go with a little more of the rum–the samoussa (samosa) platter sounded like the best option. It was tasty, filled with tuna and came with a sweet and spicy sauce. The menu is full of a fusion of French and Cambodian cuisine–Georges is from Madagascar and moved to Cambodia by way of Reunion Island, where his son is from.

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

A delicious snack while drinking more rum

While I waited for the samosas, I ordered the coffee rum for $2–I always have to try the coffee-flavored varieties of anything. Before departing in search of New Year’s festivities, I ordered the vanilla rum. It was a more complex flavor than the other rums as it included more than just one flavor. There was orange peel, lemongrass, anise, and cloves, and the flavors all stood out with each sip.

If you’re in Siem Reap, I recommend visiting Georges Rhumerie Restaurant for a bite to eat and a sip of local rhum arrangé.

Colorful Canals in Murano and Burano

“When the color achieves richness, the form attains its fullness also.”
Paul Cezanne

Beyond the main islands that make up Venice is more historic Italian beauty–it requires a water bus ride from within the city to the outskirts; it’s a journey on the water to the suburban canal towns of Murano and Burano.

Approaching Murano

Approaching Murano

The first thing I noticed on my trip to Murano from Venice was the price of the water bus–EUR 7 per ride. I figured since I was taking at least three rides, I might as well get the day pass for EUR 20. I wondered what sort of discount was offered to locals as this was certainly the most expensive public transportation I had ever encountered.

Murano

Murano

Murano and Burano are like Ventian twins–they’re always mentioned in the same breath when people talk about tourism outside the center of Venice. These were never part of the wealth class of the glory days of Venice–the islands were home to fishermen and artisans. They painted their home in vibrant colors, particularly in Burano, to make it easier for fishermen to find their way home in inclement weather. Today, those same bright houses on the canals are what draw tourists to the shores of Burano, while Murano has its colorful glass to attract attention.murano-glass

Murano is the larger tourist draw of the two towns in the Venetian Lagoon because it’s historically known for artistic glass products, which I wasn’t interested in seeing (I enjoy art, but colorful glass bowls are not my idea of inspiring). Glassmaking began in the area in late 13th century and Murano became the largest producer of glass products in Europe. While the industry has declined over the last two hundred years, Murano glass is still popular for its artistic quality and glassmaking remains Murano’s primary industry, which, of course, caters to tourists today.murano-lighthouse

There isn’t much to see or do around Murano, but it’s still a pleasant town to walk through. Large glass sculptures are displayed in public areas to attract visitors to the shops that sell smaller glass souvenirs (none of which I could afford if I wanted). There were some amusing window displays, including glass zombie figurines and some comically pornographic miniature glass figures.

Who wouldn't want decorative glass zombies?

Who wouldn’t want decorative glass zombies?

There was the impressive Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato with its leaning bell tower. The interior of the church is supposedly impressive, but it was not open to the public when I was there (it might’ve been closed for lunch).

Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato

Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato

After walking along the canals in the heat, I took one of the local water buses through the town to a stop where I could change to a water bus that would take me to Burano, the island that was once know for lace–even Leonardo di Vinci once purchased lace from Burano to cover the altar at Duomo di Milano.

Burano

Burano

What I didn’t know at the time is that Burano is much farther from Venice than Murano. The longer boat ride gave me time to peer out over the water at passing islands, none of which I could name.burano-canal

I wandered the colorful streets–it was a delight to the eyes after month of wandering Italian streets with weathered structures and an excessive of graffiti–and I could’ve wandered those streets for hours if the town was bigger and if I hadn’t been so desperate to find a decent meal. Everything on the main street through town is there for the tourists–overpriced restaurants and gift shops that sold nothing unique. I ducked down alleys to avoid the crowds and search for an affordable lunch, but came up empty; the rest of the town is residential. I only managed to find a small market at which to buy a cold bottle of water.

Creative name for a tourist trap shop

Creative name for a tourist trap shop

After wandering through streets of Burano and coming to the conclusion that everything was too expensive and touristy, I headed back to the dock for the water bus. I ate fritto misto (fried seafood) at a stand near the dock–it was the freshest fried seafood I had tasted, but it could’ve used more lemon to balance the salt. The little stand with seating in the shade was overpriced, but still significantly cheaper than anything I found in the center of the tourist area. It gave me enough energy to walk a little more across the bridge to the neighboring island of Mazzorbo.

Fritto Misto in the shade of Burano

Fritto Misto in the shade of Burano

I was welcomed to Mazzorbo with a public garden that wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped. It might’ve been more enjoyable if there was a shaded path to walk around–the sun was wearing me down and there wasn’t enough of a breeze for relief. I headed back to the dock to catch the next water bus back to Venice.

The garden at Mazzorbo

The garden at Mazzorbo

Of course, I managed to take the water bus that took the long way back to Venice. I chose the one that would drop me off at San Marco Square–I knew it wasn’t a long walk back to my hostel from there, and there was a wonderful inexpensive shop that sold mini sandwiches and spritzes for less than EUR 2. By some miracle I disembarked at San Marco–I fell asleep for at least a half hour on the boat, only to awake in time to the glory of Venice unfold before me. Maybe it was other passengers scrambling for photos that woke me from my exhaustion, but it was worth losing an extra 15 minutes of sleep on the boat to get some of those pictures that were unobscured by the crowds walking the streets.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the way back to Venice

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the way back to Venice

I was too exhausted to even stop off for a quick bite and a drink on the way to the hostel. I passed out for a while before heading out again for my second-to-last evening in Venice.

Short Stay in Phnom Penh

“Behind them were the lights of the market, the lanterns and candles and witch-lights and fairy glitter, like a dream of the night sky brought down to earth.”
Neil Gaiman, Stardust

The New York Times reminded me of what to see and do with their “36 Hours in Phnom Penh” feature. The video online talks about the food and people being the best reason to visit, but they show high-class restaurants with foreign chefs–these are restaurants that Cambodians can’t afford. The article makes Phnom Penh seem like a trendy city full of great food and nightlife while neglecting the other side that most people encounter, unless they ignore poverty and prostitution. I understand NYT’s intention in such articles is to promote luxury travel, but you can’t ignore the rest of Cambodia.phnom-penh-traffic

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time in Phnom Penh, but it’s not an easy city to experience. There’s still a large seedy side; there are still major problems throughout.

During my few days in Siem Reap, I stayed in a nicer hotel–not quite luxury, but close. I chose the Angkor Riviera hotel because there was a problem with the hostel I had originally booked and I needed something last minute; I decided to give myself a treat for a little less than $50/night. It was great and comfortable, but felt detached from the society just steps from the door–it’s the same reason I felt a little uncomfortable on Pub Street.

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

Pick up some tasty treats at the night market. Can you identify any of it?

I went with something less appealing when I got to Phnom Penh.

I was fortunate enough to have a contact in the city to show me around one night. Paul took me out to one of the nicer bars, Metro Hassakan, that could fit into any American or European city (and the prices weren’t too bad, but still unaffordable for most of the local population). I also got to see the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), which shows its age but exudes character and charm. Given more time to enjoy the city, I’d probably head back to the FCC for the views of Phnom Penh–we had to sit at the bar because there weren’t tables available by the windows facing the city or the river.

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

Get your Angry Birds on a stick to eat

One attraction in the city that was missing from the New York Times piece is the night market. It’s unlike the street night markets in Taipei or Hong Kong–it’s set up in a square across from the Tonle Sap River on Sisowath Quay. It doesn’t have the same draw as the historic Central Market, which has a great food market for lunch and snacks during the day, but it has a more friendly vibe.phnom-penh-night-market

I skipped the stage performance and the stalls selling clothes and souvenirs and headed to the back of the market for food. The food vendors are set up around the dining area, which is just some bamboo mats and carpetson the ground–you have to take off your shoes to eat in the area. There’s a variety of delicacies ranging from grilled who-knows-what on a stick to full plates of chicken or fish with rice. After ordering, some vendors will deliver the food to you on the bamboo mats and carpets.

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

My meal at the Phnom Penh Night Market

The dining area is more of a social event for locals–they order plenty of food to share as they talk and listen to the musical performances on the other side of the market. Sitting there with my food was the experience I sought; it was boisterous and friendly–I was warned about safety, particularly in crowds in Phnom Penh, but it felt comfortable in the evening warmth. I felt more at ease in that night market than I did in any of the markets in Vietnam.

What do you think? Can local night markets be a part of a luxury tour of a city? What are some of your favorite markets?

Sunny Sensoji & Sumida River Walk

A friend from the Taipei Beer Lovers meetup came to visit Tokyo–my little apartment has a futon, so I could offer a little space to save money on travel (even with the expensive train ride from the suburbs to the city, it’s a large chunk of change to save on a hostel). We didn’t have much in the way of plans for the weekend–I came up with some sightseeing options depending on the weather, but we mostly planned for wandering the city for food and drinks, of which we had plenty in Shimokitazawa.

sensoji temple

The crowd at Sensoji

In lieu of hiking with the crowds of Japan, we decided to head to Asakusa and Sensoji Temple–the same temple I visited in a downpour on my first day in Tokyo last year. This time around the weather was beautiful–the crowd was another story. It’s a long metro ride, with two train line changes, from my apartment (this is why I usually bring my Kindle on the trains).sensoji temple

As beautiful as Tokyo’s oldest temple is, we decided to escape the crowd and walk around the area, which isn’t all that interesting. Actually, there are some nice streets and interesting shops, but those are on the so-crowded-you-can’t-walk-faster-than-a-tortoise streets. The combination of tourists and locals makes Asakusa almost unbearable in pleasant weather.sake-ice-cream

We stopped for a bit at a vendor to try the sake and wasabi ice cream. Not sure which flavor I enjoyed more as they were both delicious.

sumida rive tokyo

View of Tokyo from the Sumida River

To escape the crowd, we took the riverside walk along the Sumida River toward Akihabara to see a bit of the weird side of Tokyo. Akihabara isn’t all that weird, really, but it does have a bit more of what tourists expect to see in respect to fashion and products in Tokyo.akihabara cosplay

Aside from the the first steps down to the river walk, there isn’t much of a view of the city. But it’s also not at all crowded–there were surprisingly few people on the quiet path for a sunny Sunday afternoon.bond-boat-tokyo

We did see a few of these James Bond-esque boats along the river–we expected them to submerge, but it never happened.

As we arrived in Akihabara, we wandered the streets and browsed shops filled with anime figures and tech products that do who-knows-what. Seriously, I have no idea what that thing does.akihabara-electronics

We ended the day with a stop in Shinjuku for an evening view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Once again, I managed to arrive at the building with no line for the elevator and no crowd to block the view of the city.tokyo night

It was an exhausting day of walking, but well worth the views and the few snacks we found along the way.

Photos for World Food Day

“What you are eating is always the end of a very long story–and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems.”
Anthony Bourdain

Yesterday was World Food Day. No, really, this is an official day because people obviously need a reminder to eat food instead of plastic. It actually commemorates the founding of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945. It reminds me that on a family vacation we stopped in Morro Bay, California, and the only non-fast food chain near the hotel had a huge sign that said, “Real Food.” What does that say about the other establishments in town?

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Amok with rice and Cambodian beer

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few photos of food from Cambodia that I hadn’t posted before. Unlike it’s neighbors, Cambodia doesn’t use a lot of chili in its food–most dishes have lighter flavors. There’s a lot of grilled food and light curries around the country. They prefer to use a lot of lemongrass and basil to any overpowering flavors you might find in other parts of Asia. There aren’t any dishes that I would consider heavy or oily because they’d probably kill people with the heat and humidity.grilled-squid

One of the first meals I had in a real restaurant was amok, a lemongrass curry served in a banana leaf bowl, that I found in downtown Siem Reap. It’s generally served with fish, but there’s also chicken and beef for all the tourists who pass through. In Phnom Penh, the best food I found was at the Central Market–the crowded market that sells everything from clothes to tourist junk also has a great selection of local foods. I was tempted to eat everything in sight, but my stomach isn’t big enough for that.

Seoul Food

This is long overdue. I ate a lot of food in Korea, but it was mostly at home because eating out in Seoul can get a little expensive. I did eat out every weekend so I could try the wonders that Korean cuisine offers.

korean bbq

Delicious Korean barbecue

You can’t visit Korea and not eat barbecue

One of my favorites was Korean barbecue. I went out twice with friends for this because it’s not a meal you can eat alone. Our orders included a nice helping of thick-cut bacon–I mean about four slices of bacon that weigh close to a pound. There’s a variety of marinated bacon you can order and I have no idea what we ordered either time because I only know a few words of Korean. Along with the bacon, we had mushrooms, kimchi, potato, shrimp, and tofu (which tastes better mixed with the grilled kimchi).

fried rice

We added rice to the mix at one of the Korean barbecues

I found it a little unusual that the bacon was cut with scissors while cooking, as were some of the large pieces of kimchi. One of my friends asked if I’d ever seen scissors used during food service. I’m fairly certain I’ve only seen it used to cut masses of noodles stuck together in Vietnam. Whether or not you cut the bacon with scissors doesn’t change the wonderful taste you get to enjoy. And it goes great with beer, soju, or makgeolli.

ginseng chicken soup

Ginseng chicken soup

Tasting soup in summer

One of my first meals with my former coworker was samgyetang (삼계탕), or ginseng chicken soup, in Itaewon before heading to the craft beer bar. The ginseng flavor is light and mixed with a bit of ginger and sweet rice. It took a while before the clay pot stopped boiling so I could taste the soup–might as well order a beer and wait for that bowl to cool off to avoid burning your mouth. There’s a whole small chicken in that bowl, so it’s quit filling before a nice night out with beer. It’s also considered a summer soup because of the ginseng, but I think it’d taste pretty good in the winter as well.

korean dumplings

Dumpling and rice cake soup

Speaking of soups, before visiting the Joseon Royal Tombs I stopped off for some dumpling and rice cake soup. Tteok manduguk (떡 만두국) is two separate soups in a meat (probably pork) broth mixed together. It’s another filling meal. As someone used to dumplings in China, Taiwan, and Japan, the Korean dumplings were a surprise–there were only three in the bowl, and they were huge. Korean dumplings are also the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure what’s in them, but they have a lot more flavor than anything I’ve had in other Asian countries. I got desperate and bought some frozen dumplings to make in my tiny apartment and even they were awesome.

flounder korea

Fried flounder

Korean street food and the local market

As I visited the local market often, I began to grow curious about the prepared food being sold. One night after work I decided to try the fried flounder, which came is a dipping sauce akin to light soy sauce. This was the same market at which I tried a whole fried chicken after my hike in Bukhansan National Park. It was the best food decision I could’ve made for about $6, but it created horrible temptation for the rest of my stay in Seoul.

jokbal

Jokbal at the market

Because I enjoyed drinking makgeolli, one of my friends suggested I try jokbal (족발), pig trotters cooked with soy sauces and some spices. I tried this at the local market, but it was the one meal I can say I didn’t enjoy at all. I was told that it should’ve come with some slices of meat from the legs, but all I got was bone, cartilage, fat, and skin. I was disappointed and just drank my bottle of makgeolli.

Toppoki

Won’t you take me to Toppoki Town?

Another meal I didn’t enjoy too much was toppoki (떡볶이), spicy soft rice cakes, which is really disappointing because I lived just down the street from Toppoki Street. The sauce is a little salty for my taste, but more importantly I didn’t enjoy the consistency of the glutinous rice. I admit that the reason I don’t enjoy certain foods is more because of texture than flavor.

I had a lot more to eat besides that, but I don’t remember exactly what they were; sometimes I had no idea what I was even ordering at the restaurants. I have to admit that Korean food is some of my favorite in Asia.

What are your favorite Korean dishes? What would you like to try?

Italy and the Death of Diet

Perhaps this title is a bit hyperbolic; however, it fits my feelings about staying in Italy for a little over a month. More than anywhere else I’ve been, the temptation to gorge on foods that are generally unhealthy in such quantities is ever-present here.

italian cheese

Can I just live in the cheese section of the grocery store?

I was trying to lose some weight

After two months of losing weight in Korea (not to mention a bit of an effort at the end of my stay in Taiwan), I’ve come to Italy to face the temptation of all the foods that the country has to offer. Fortunately, with the high cost of eating out and my odd work hours, I’m forced to at least eat breakfast and lunch in my apartment, and I have managed to find healthy foods to cook in the limited space I have.

Cheese is everywhere in Italy

I knew I’d be tempted by the cheeses and cured meats that are so prevalent in Italy. I cut down on cheese for over six months before heading out on this adventure, and Asia lacks cheese, which means another nine months without that deliciousness.

That's all for me, right?

That’s all for me, right?

Gelato beats the Italian summer heat

Italy is also home to some wonderful gelato. Some of what I had in Rome was good, but nothing exceptional–or at least good enough for me to want more all the time. I mostly wanted it because it’s hot walking around in late July and August. I was quite happy having a refreshing mojito gelato while walking around Florence two weeks ago. The other gelato I had the next day was overly sweet.

gelato

You mean I CAN’T eat all the gelato now?

That was until I discovered this little gelato shop in Perugia. I hate how businesses throw around “artisan,” but here it means something. This shop even makes its own gelato bars dipped in chocolate (the Nutella and coconut was wonderful) and gelato sandwiches. This shop is also much cheaper than the 5 or 6 euros some shops tried to charge in Florence–I only have to pay 2.50 euros for a medium cup. This is reason enough to visit Perugia.

perugia gelato

I have no idea what to get

Of course, it’s obvious that this is a university town when another gelato shop advertises cannabis-flavored gelato. Somehow I doubt it tastes good, but I may give it a try anyway.

Should I try it?

Should I try it?

Where have you been that offered too much culinary temptation to resist?

We All Scream for Beer Ice Cream

A variety of ice cream flavors from Snow King in Taipei

A variety of ice cream flavors from Snow King in Taipei

I’ll confess, I didn’t actually order beer ice cream in Taiwan. I guarantee, however, that should I move back to Taipei, I will try it. At the time, I was just distracted by the variety of flavors that sounded more appealing.

I ended up at 雪王冰淇淋 (literally: Snow King Ice Cream, not to be confused with Barney Gumble’s Plow King business) near Ximen with some friends before a film festival. I hadn’t planned on going to the festival because I wasn’t interested in seeing any movies until my friend mentioned that they were showing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”–now how could I pass up on seeing that in Taipei? Unfortunately, my friends couldn’t get an extra ticket, but took me out for dinner and ice cream instead.

The flavors my friends ordered were brandy, pork floss, and the ever-boring green tea. I made the best decision of the group and ordered chili flavor. The chili ice cream had a nice little kick that was mellowed by the milk in the ice cream–it was a pleasant, refreshing flavor for a warm evening.

Menu from Snow King. Curry and wasabi ice cream?

Menu from Snow King. Curry and wasabi ice cream?

I still don’t know what possessed the one friend to order pork floss–it sounded disgusting and tasted like a frozen version of dry, salty pork. The brandy ice cream was disappointing–I expected it to have a slightly sweet flavor, but all we could taste was the alcohol. But it served as a warning to not order the baijiu-flavored ice cream next time, which was unlikely to happen anyway.

Getting drunk off the ice cream

Getting drunk off the ice cream

Snow King also has rose, sesame oil chicken, pig knuckle, and plum wine flavors. Which would you want to order?

Night Markets of Taipei

One of the great things about traveling around Asia is the night markets. Every city has them. Some cities are better known for them than others. They’re always the best places to find local food, interact with people, and buy some cheap items that you might want or need.

wheel cake

Wheel cakes, a custard or red bean-filled dessert that’s found everywhere in Taipei

Taipei is home to numerous night markets of varying sizes–some more popular than others. And because there are convenience stores on every block, it’s easy to stop in 7-11 or Family Mart for beer while you walk around and sample the delicacies. My apartment is about a mile from Ningxia Night Market, which I discovered on one of my wanderings after work.

frog eggs night market

No, it’s not real frog eggs. If it was, I would’ve ordered it.

Ningxia Night Market is full of food. Unfortunately, there’s very little room between the stalls to walk and even less seating area as only a few stalls provide seating. I also found that trash is only at the end of the night market, so you have to carry your garbage as you order more food.taipei night market

Ningxia is not the largest night market, but there’s plenty of variety–stinky tofu, deep-fried shrimp and egg stuffed buns, and squid balls covered in spices. There are also plenty of restaurants on the street if you’re tired of walking between the food stalls.

Mmm...grilled squid

Mmm…grilled squid

As I read on more than a few websites, the place to go is Raohe Night Market. Fortunately, I road my YouBike past there a while ago and knew where it was–it’s not that close to my apartment or convenient to a metro station.

raohe night market

Welcome to Raohe Night Market

As all the YouBikes were taken at Linsen Park, I had to find a bus to take me to the night market. I arrived around 7:30 to a very crowded night market that was mostly filled with tourists (yeah, sure it’s the locals’ night market). I was greeted by these creepy owls at the entrance to the night market.

Not the most welcoming statue

Not the most welcoming statue

I found a greater variety of food, plus many more clothing vendors than at the other night markets I visited in Taipei. The first thing I tried was fried milk–it sounded like something that I’d find at county fair in the Midwest. It tasted like solidified vanilla yogurt.

fried milk night market

Really, they fried milk

More impressive were the grilled squid and mini baozi (steamed stuffed buns)–I even got to use toothpicks as mini chopsticks.

baozi night market

Mini baozi. Just as good as regular-sized baozi

By the time I was finished walking through the crowd at Raohe, I had had enough. I headed south to Gongguan to get some local beer to wash down all that wonderful food that my doctor probably doesn’t recommend I eat. There are plenty of other night markets around Taipei, but these were the most memorable (I also prefer avoiding the crowds, so I tend to eat elsewhere).

Have you visited night markets in Taipei or elsewhere? What are you favorite night markets and night market foods?

 

Taste of Tokyo

I’ve tried quite a bit of food around Tokyo since I arrived in late October. Unfortunately, I have no idea what most of it is. The best I can do is take a few photos of what I’ve had and try to explain it.

spicy ramen

Is that saffron in my ramen?

On my day at Shinjuku Park, I stopped for lunch at a ramen noodle shop that was relatively inexpensive for the area. I ordered what looked like a spicy noodle soup, and I was right. It was a red curry ramen soup–not too spicy, but had great flavor. The restaurant was also easy to find as it wasn’t far from the entrance to the park–just on the street from the station.

There was also the evening I dined at Sushi-Go-Round (also in Shinjuku). There’s nothing quite like sitting at a counter and grabbing plates of sushi from a conveyor belt. Most of what passed by was not identifiable without knowledge of Japanese characters–I still have no idea what the last thing I ate was, but it definitely should’ve stayed on the conveyor.conveyor belt sushi

The most entertaining part of the meal was having staff come up and count my plates to give me the bill. There are different prices for the various sushi, and the plates are different colors depending on the price. I also noticed some customers ordering specific dishes (not that I’d know how to do that).

natto sushi

I don’t know what this sushi was and I don’t want to try it again

When I met up with my Chinese expat friends from my hike at Mt. Takao, we decided to try okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a sort of pancake with cabbage that you get to make on a grill set in the table–ours had seafood and meat mixed in as well. It’s also topped with some shaved dried fish and dried seaweed. I’m still not sure about topping it with mayo, but that’s how it’s done in Japan. It was pretty good, but I think it’d be better with kimchi or curry mixed in.

okonomiyaki tokyo

Preparing the okonomiyaki

We also ordered some other variation of okonomiyaki (or maybe it was just some similar cooking style) that wasn’t really a pancake, but more of a mess. We had to ask for help making it because my companions only had it once before and had forgotten what to do with it.

okonomiyaki tokyo

Sharing Okonomiyaki with Chinese expats in Tokyo

One of the more interesting meals I tried was at a seafood restaurant with another friend. We were actually searching for an okonomiyaki restaurant, but decided on a lively seafood restaurant instead. We had a small table grill to cook our own clams and whelk. grilled seafood tokyo

I’m not sure if we overcooked the whelk, but it was very chewy and tasted rather bitter. It really didn’t taste anything like the escargot I’ve had at French restaurants. But it was worth a try.

Whelk, at least I tried it

Whelk, at least I tried it

I enjoyed the tuna cheek much more. I surprised by the size of it and by how much meat there was. It the best tuna I’ve had, which would explain why it’s the restaurant’s specialty.

Sometimes you just have to eat dinner under the railroad tracks

Sometimes you just have to eat dinner under the railroad tracks

On one of my solo sightseeing journey’s, I found a street of restaurants set beneath the railroad tracks near the Imperial Palace. I chose to eat at the semi-outdoor barbecue restaurant alongside the tunnel. I had some sort of light meat stew and some grilled skewers for a few dollars. Had I not been exhausted from a day of walking and getting lost, I might’ve enjoyed the semi-outdoor atmosphere more.

Some meat and broth after a long day of getting lost in Tokyo

Some meat and broth after a long day of getting lost in Tokyo

First Meals in Japan

The smallest eggplant I've ever seen

The smallest eggplant I’ve ever seen

Everyone says Japanese restaurants are expensive, but I’ve found them to be rather reasonable. Of course, I’m also used to Jersey City and Manhattan restaurants. This doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the expensive restaurants here in Tokyo–I don’t go for meals like that unless I have someone to go with or know what I’m ordering.

Don’t ask me where I’ve eaten here in Tokyo–I know what neighborhoods these restaurants are in, but they don’t have English or even Romanized names and I can’t read Japanese. But I have found some interesting little restaurants. Some of the restaurants I’ve been to have meals for less than $10 (most are noodle shops). As I haven’t been here long, I haven’t found anything exceptional, but I have been satisfied with my dining experiences.

The first meal I had was in a very small restaurant near my hotel. I pointed to the pictures on the menu and ended up with gyoza (fried dumplings) and grilled squid. I’ve had gyoza plenty more times because they’re cheap–usually $2-3 for six of them.currysoup

When I wandered in the rain through Shimokitazawa, I stopped in a curry soup restaurant. It was a great choice at about $10 because it was hot and a little spicy for a chilly, rainy day. I liked that they asked for spice level–I chose 8 because I wasn’t sure what their levels were; next time I’d probably go with 10 or more (yes, their spice level goes above 10, just like Spinal Tap’s volume).seafoodpancake

On my first visit to Machida, which is three train stops away, I ate at a yakitori and sushi restaurant. The atmosphere was great–they even have some cool shoe lockers with odd wood keys. I’m not sure what I ordered, but I had some grilled asparagus wrapped with fish and a seafood pancake that had some large chunks of shrimp and squid. It was good, but I probably should’ve ordered more.

How could I turn away from such a sign?

How could I turn away from such a sign?

While hiking Mt. Takao last weekend, I stopped to try Devil’s Tongue. It’s some sort of glutinous sesame snack that’s cooked over charcoal and covered with a bit of what I think is teriyaki.

Devil's Tongue is cooking

Devil’s Tongue is cooking

Anthony Bourdain also posted on his Twitter that Lawson has some oddly wonderful egg salad sandwich. Of course, when I visited the Lawson store around the corner they didn’t have any for me to try. I’ll go with the theory that Bourdain is just tormenting me with a sandwich that no longer exists.

What to Eat in Boston

Before heading to Boston, I asked a coworker to recommend some restaurants, and he gave me a decent list. Through my own searches, I found even more places to try. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make a dent in that list (just another reason to head back to Boston).

Say Chowda!

All I could think of was The Simpsons. "Say it right, Frenchy, it's chowda!"

All I could think of was The Simpsons. “Say it right, Frenchy, it’s chowda!”

One of the top places I had to stop at was jm Curley, which is just off Boston Common on Temple Place. It’s a trendy bar with a nice beer selection and some interesting items on the menu. I almost ordered the braised rabbit pizza, but I decided to instead try the “Mc Rib” bahn mi. It was a sandwich made with wild boar, ginger bbq sauce, pickled carrots and other veggies, and spicy fish sauce mayo. All those flavors combined into a beautiful harmony (did I mention this is by the Theatre District?).jm curley banh mi

My dessert is served on a what?

Now, I’m not much for dessert, but I couldn’t pass up what was on jm Curley’s menu. How can anyone pass up a foie gras glazed jelly donut? It was covered in basil crystals and filled with strawberry-rhubarb jelly. Unlike other donuts, the dough was not sweet, so you could taste all the flavors. It was better than I expected, but I probably wouldn’t spend $6 on another.

boston donut

My donut was served on a freaking pedestal

Ivy League burgers

After my tour of Harvard, I headed to Mr. Bartley’s, a little no-frills burger joint that’s been around for about 50 years. My friend from the hostel and I were fortunate to get a seat at the long table–as we left we noticed a long line outside. While waiting for our burgers, we were entertained by the odd collection of signs, bumper stickers, and posters covering the walls–there is no theme, just a bit of humor.

I definitely think the Michelle Obama burger was a good choice–cajun spices and blue cheese tempted me into ordering it. It’s definitely in contention for one of the best burgers I’ve had.bartleys burger boston

Hooray for Boston’s Chinatown

On the way back from a long tour around Boston, I noticed some large Chinese characters on the side of a food truck: 羊肉串. I turned my travel companion for the day and said with delight, “Yang rou chuan! We have to go!” And those lamb skewers were as good as I remember from China. All that was missing were some plastic stools and cold Tsingtao (my China expat readers will understand).

My favorite Chinese food on a stick

My favorite Chinese food on a stick

And because I was staying in Chinatown, I had to try a restaurant around the corner from the hostel. It wasn’t Chinese though. I had dinner at Penang, a busy Malaysian restaurant. The extensive menu made it a bit difficult to choose a meal, but I settled on the Malaysian staple of nasi lemak, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was quite a bit of food, but I do regret not ordering more just for the joy of eating Malaysian food.

Penang Boston

Just part of the large, crowded restaurant Penang

I also had a lobster roll while walking the Freedom Trail, but it wasn’t all that impressive. I probably should’ve stopped at one of the recommended seafood restaurants instead.

Nasi Lemak at Penang

Nasi Lemak at Penang

Fast Food in Iceland

I was rather busy enjoying the culinary delights of Iceland, which mostly consisted of fish (with a side of puffin and whale). But there were a few times that I stopped off for a quick bite to eat so I could sample fast food in Iceland.

Bæjarins beztu pylsur hot dog stand

Bæjarins beztu pylsur hot dog stand in Reykjavik

The hot dog that gave Bill Clinton a heart attack

The first stop was Bæjarins beztu pylsur (don’t ask me how to pronounce that) for a hot dog. This is the hot dog to have in Reykjavik. Bill Clinton had one shortly before his heart attack. If that’s not an endorsement for a hot dog, I don’t know what is. Anthony Bourdain also ate there.hotdog

This hot dog stand has been around since 1937. It’s popular despite being surrounded by parking lots. I’m not really sure what was on my hot dog–I asked for one with everything (fried onions and mustard was involved). It was really good, but not quite as good as the hot dogs at Crif Dogs in Manhattan though.

Who eats pizza in Iceland?

pizza

Even better than the hot dog was the slice of pizza I had for lunch after I switched hotels to Hotel Fron. The Deli is a little shop on Laugavegur, really close to downtown. My pizza had chili peppers, sweet peppers, yam, spinach, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. For everything that was on that slice, it was an amazing combination of flavors. They have a lot of other interesting combinations as well.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time in Iceland to try all the restaurants that tempted me. I would’ve liked to try the American Style restaurant.

Geothermal Baking

fontana_thermalOn my day tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle, I was talked into adding a couple hours at Fontana Spa in Laugarvatn–I was told for a few more dollars I could relax and still see all the sights I wanted (it really meant less time spent at Thingvellir National Park).

It was relaxing in the geothermal-heated pools. If my glasses didn’t keep fogging up from the pools, I could’ve enjoyed the surrounding mountains and lake–the scenery is beautiful, but it’s a little difficult to bring a camera into a pool. I tried the steam baths, but it was so hot I felt my skin burning–the staff left the doors to the steam baths open for quite a while to let them cool down to a safer level.fontana_view

The highlight of this stop wasn’t the relaxation, but the rye bread. Upon arrival at Fontana, we were given a short tour out by the geothermal generator. Every day the staff makes bread there–they mix the ingredients in an air-tight metal container and bury it on the lake shore.

Digging up the bread

Digging up the bread

We were given a taste of the Icelandic rye topped with some smoked trout. It was delicious.fontanabread-trout

After soaking in the warm outdoor pools and freezing on the walk back inside, I had a Skyr (Icelandic yogurt) smoothie with raspberry, mango, and banana. It was quite refreshing after a long day on a bus.