Category Archives: Travel

New Year’s In Japan Part 3: Visiting a Temple and/or Shrine

I’m not Buddhist, nor do I practice Shintoism but if I’m in Japan at the dawn of a new year I always visit one (or several) of the temples and shrines scattered throughout the country. I love the beauty, serenity, history and traditions associated with each site.

In Tokyo the very popular Meiji shrine is my favorite. Surrounded by a forest, the shrine is a quiet oasis in the middle of the busy city. If I’m in Kyoto, I refuse to leave without a visit to the Inari Shrine, easily one of my top ten places in the world.

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New Year’s in Japan Part 2: Where To Nurse Your Hangover

Every few years I head back to Japan to ring in the New Year. While most Japanese go home and spend New Year’s Eve with their legs tucked cozily under a kotatsu, (a table with a heater underneath and shrouded with a thick blanket) eating soba (buckwheat noodles) and various other symbolic dishes with their families, I do my best to wrangle up a few good friends for a night of debauchery. I’m not a drinker. I’m not a smoker. Simply put I have no vices. But if I’m in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve I’m the girl in the corner of a smoky bar at 5am with a martini in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a line of empty shot glasses in front of her.

This may explain why I don’t drink the other 364 days of the year.

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New Year’s in Japan, Part 1: Feasting on Street Food

Japan celebrates the New Year on January 1st (not some time in late January like the Chinese). More accurately put, Japan celebrates the New Year from January 1st to the 3rd. The holiday always includes a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (actually, most people hit both… nothing wrong with hedging your bets). And wherever large crowds of Japanese congregate, good food is never far way. During major Japanese holidays like New Year’s the streets surrounding the largest temples and shrines are filled with vendors whipping up popular street food like yakisoba (fried noodles), karaage (fried chicken), okonomiyaki (vegetable and seafood pancakes), yakitori (grilled chicken), takoyaki (doughy balls filled with octopus), chocolate covered bananas, and numerous other treats. All these delicious morsels, accompanied with the free flowing sweetened hot sake and cold Japanese beer, make for an atmosphere that’s always festive and celebratory.

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Forbidden Rice with Macadamia Nuts and Garlic

The second best thing about being on vacation (the first being that you’re actually on vacation) is discovering new food—unknown produce, exotic spices, exciting flavor combinations, or even just an ingenious use for a common ingredient. While in Maui this August I was rendered speechless by a beautiful silky coconut and vanilla sauce enveloping delicate prawns at the famous (and somewhat tourist-trappy) Mama’s Fish House. Balancing coconut cream and vanilla in a successful savory dish takes serious skill and restraint. Perhaps even more impressive was the breadfruit gnocchi at Merriman’s, a testament to the chef & proprietor’s dedication to local produce. The cooks no doubt employed a touch of culinary sorcery to turn the starchy tropical fruit into soft pillows for the butter-poached lobster to rest on.

Personally I find the most memorable dishes are often the simplest. Case and point: Merriman’s macadamia nut garlic rice. Simple, obvious and yet surprising—this dish begged to be taken back as a souvenir. Of course when I got home, I couldn’t help but tweak it… just a little. Step one was to bring the macadamia nuts to the forefront. I don’t know why, but at Merriman’s they cooked the nuts and rice together so that although the nuts imparted a deep flavor throughout the dish, texturally you couldn’t differentiate them from the rice. I’ve chosen to highlight the macadamias by toasting the chopped nuts lightly & tossing them with the cooked rice at the end. My second tweak is a splash of walnut oil, a little something to further accentuate the delicious nutty flavor. Lastly, a few slices of scallion finish the dish with a peppery zip.

Forbidden rice is a gorgeous heirloom Chinese grain that turns dark purple when cooked, and has a nice “al dente” texture. This dish is fragrant, exotic, striking & yet straightforward… if it were a woman I think my husband would be tempted to run away with it.

Serves 2

Ingredients:
¾ cup short grain white rice (I use sushi rice)
½ cup forbidden rice
Salt
Handful of macadamia nuts, chopped
2 small cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 tsp. walnut oil
1 scallion, thinly sliced

  • Wash the short grain rice gently in a small pot, drain and repeat until the water is clear (about 10 times). After the final rinse and drain, add ¾ cup of cold water & a pinch of salt. Cover and place on the stove over high heat. When it comes to a boil immediately turn the heat down to low and simmer until done, about 30 minutes.
  • For the forbidden rice simply add the rice, ¾ cup + 1 Tbs. of water and a pinch of salt to a small pot. Again, cover and place on the stove over high heat. When it comes to a boil turn the heat down to low and simmer until done, about 30 minutes.
  • Add the chopped macadamia nuts to a skillet (you can chop them on a cutting board or slip them into a ziplock bag and pound them gently with a meat tenderizer or similarly heavy object). If the nuts are unsalted add a pinch of salt. Lightly toast the nuts over medium high heat. When nuts are golden brown remove and set aside.
  • Pour 1 Tbs. of neutral oil into a skillet. Add the garlic. Carefully cook the garlic over medium high heat. Remove the garlic from the oil once it is golden and fragrant.
  • When both pots of rice are finished fluff the grains with a fork. Combine the forbidden & short grain white rice. Add the walnut oil, cooked garlic and toasted macadamia nuts. Toss to combine. Taste and add a pinch more salt if necessary. Top with scallion slices and serve.

Why Drive To Hana When There’s White Sand, Naked Surfers, and Grilled Fish in Makena?

Let me preface such a bold statement by saying that if you’ve never seen a tropical rain forest or waterfalls then definitely drive to Hana. It is beautiful. Winding roads and one-way bridges. Black basalt cliffs that drop off into the blue ocean. Hills so heavy with moisture that water seeps out of the rock, trickles down the sides of the slopes, and glistens off delicate maidenhair ferns and vibrant green moss. Air perfumed with the sweet smell of wild ginger flowers mixed with a ripe sour odor of tropical fruit fermenting on the ground under the trees.

But don’t drive up there expecting the dense forest to part like a botanical curtain, revealing a secluded waterfall with white aerated water cascading into a glassy turquoise pool. You will most definitely not be able to convince your companion to strip down and make passionate love to you, the cool water falling on your backs from the cliffs above. There are numerous waterfalls and waterholes, but you will share each with a dozen or so tourists dipping their white hairy legs in ash green water that seems to have taken on an oily sheen from all the diluted sunblock and bug spray in it.

Hana is gorgeous, no argument there. But if you’ve seen a tropical rainforest before and only have a few days in Maui, I would recommend spending the 6+ hours it would take you to drive to and from Hana, eating and relaxing in Makena instead.

Grab a towel and spend part of that time lying out on the warm white sand of Big Beach. It’s the largest non-developed white sand beach on the island and it is phenomenal. A pretty sudden drop about 30 feet offshore results in consistent 8-12 foot waves—hours of fun for those who enjoy boogie boarding or body surfing, and a relaxing soundtrack for nappers and sunbathers (not that I’m promoting tanning! It’s bad, very bad!)

If you’re up for a little adventure and a bit of a show, climb the rocky cliff on the far right. On the other side of the lava outcropping lies the clothing optional Little Beach. The combination of wind, waves, surfboards and nudity makes for a show that could rival Puppetry of the Penis (imagine penis origami… or maybe don’t). Nude sunbathing isn’t officially allowed in Hawaii, so if you want to return home sans tan lines this is the place. Alternatively, if you are simply curious what a naked man hunched down riding a wave looks like… Ta-da!

After a few hours of swimming (and showing), you’re apt to be a bit peckish. Luckily there are two superb dining options close by that serve my favorite type of food—meat grilled on the side of a road.

Immediately across the road from the entrance to the parking lot for Big Beach is a stall selling Ahi and Mahi Mahi sandwiches. The chef/owner of this gritty food operation is a character straight out of an Anthony Bourdain novel—bare-chested, tattooed, sporting a beard and ponytail. He has an affinity for talking inches from your face, an experience enhanced by the fact that he’s missing his right front tooth.

His 13 years in the food industry were evidenced when he cut a perfect one cm. onion ring by cupping the onion in his left hand and smoothly guiding an 8inch blade straight through the bulb with his right hand. He whipped out a disposable latex glove for handling the fish, showing that—contrary to what his personal appearance might suggest—cleanliness is a high priority.

We caught whiffs of caramelizing pineapple as we sat on a twisted log waiting for the fish to cook and were regaled with the musings of a man who clearly spends a lot of time in his own head. He told us about the night he kicked everyone off the line in a restaurant where he worked and finished the busy dinner service with only a dishwasher by his side. He bragged about the various job interviews where he threatened to punch his prospective boss. But we were repeatedly assured that he never kicks a man once he’s down—he always waits for the opponent to stand up before laying into him again. With the passion of a guidance counselor instructing a wayward teenager he cautioned us to keep our backs to a wall whenever we found ourselves in the next inevitable bar brawl.

Our host bragged that he would impersonate a crazy person if ever faced with a prison sentence, excitedly assuring us that it would earn him a little vacation on the funny farm and secure him an early release. I don’t think he’ll have to try too hard to convince anyone. Thankfully his fish sandwich is determined to outshine his intense personality.

Marinated in a secret sauce (the chef is willing to part with the recipe for a measly $10,000) and cooked to perfection over smoldering wood, the fish is sandwiched between a split bun, shredded lettuce, tomato, sweet onion and a thin slice of grilled pineapple. There are no condiments on the sandwich. The juices from the fish, pineapple and tomato provide all the sauce you need. It is fresh, smoky, flavorful and large.

If grilled fish or brawling tips aren’t for you, then stop at the Big Beach BBQ wagon, about a hundred meters or so back up the road towards Wailea. They have fish as well, but the real star is their succulent kalua pork, slow cooked the night before by the owner & operator, it’s heaped over shredded cabbage on warm tortillas or soft purple taro buns.

A salsa of tomato, pineapple, pepper and cilantro adds additional flavor and crunch. Don’t leave without slathering on one (or more) of the homemade hot sauces: guava, lilikoi (passion fruit) & XXX. Tart and spicy, they add great kick to mildly sweet tacos and sliders.

The Hawaiian sausage made of pork and pineapple that they offer was another favorite of mine. I happen to like thicker sausage casings that have a bit more resistance and rewarding spring to them. These definitely qualify. Split open, grilled on the spot and placed in a hotdog bun and topped with a bit of crunchy cabbage—these sausages are delectable.

With a full belly you can either return to Big Beach for a snooze in the sun, or head back to your hotel for a poolside piña colada… or perhaps to the privacy of your hotel room to practice some puppetry of your own. Now, doesn’t that sound better than spending six hours in a car, and unwittingly rubbing up against total strangers in a murky swimming hole?

Feast Your Eyes: A Nibble of Americana

I love July 4th. What’s not to love about fireworks, barbeque, sun, water… and independence? This year I traveled to the small town of Green Lake, Wisconsin to spend the holiday with friends. I may be a city girl but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to enjoy a campfire pancake breakfast, fried cheese curds dipped in ranch and pizza sauce, sugar dusted funnel cake, butter dipped sweet corn, or smoky bratwursts with sauerkraut and spicy homemade relish.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing occasional wordless or word-lite posts. Browsing through my photos from the holiday weekend I believe that this is the perfect beginning to the series. Ladies and gentlemen… Feast Your Eyes

 

I Dream of Scooters and Street Food.

(I’ve been wanting to write a piece on Taiwan since my memorable trip last March but work and responsibilities took precedence… until now! If you grew up in Taiwan I hope this makes you homesick, in the best sort of way. And if you’ve never been to the island maybe this will entice you to give it a place on your “must visit” list.)

I bend down to inspect a vacant spot on the concrete steps in front of a brightly lit store with a blue and green neon sign that reads “Family Mart”. Seeing no excessive fluid or grime, I lay claim to the prime real estate and turn my attention to my recently acquired loot.

A small plastic bag holds three xiao rou bao, soft white buns stuffed and steamed with juicy pork and smothered in a spicy chili sauce. A paper sleeve cradles a chicken filet the size of a Dan Brown novel. The succulent meat has been pounded out, bathed in salty brine, breaded and fried until shatteringly crisp. A generous dusting of a secret spice blend blankets the golden exterior. Hints of garlic, chili and white pepper waft towards me. Slices of bell fruit, the love child of a watermelon and spool of cotton candy, stare up at me through the thin plastic container holding them. Their dark pink skin and white interior glisten under the neon lights.

Many years ago I lived a couple of train stops away from this epicurean heaven known as the Shilin Night Market. This is my first trip back since I left the island of Taiwan ten years ago. I savor the moment and take in the action around me.

A few feet to my right, a young couple hurries out of the way as a sputtering scooter hops the curb onto the sidewalk. The driver squeezes into a tight space between two other scooters and flips down the kickstand. His bike is the latest to be added to the expanding row, parked alongside each other like a precarious game of dominoes (surprisingly, and perhaps a little disappointingly, a scooter domino tumble rarely occurs).

Vendor stalls are packed into what, during the day, is an open space in front of a movie theater and continue as far as the eye can see along the main road, their lights disappearing down the adjoining alleyways. The chatter from dueling megaphones can be heard over the traffic. Two fast talking vendors are advertising competing sales on ladies undergarments. A mannequin bust wearing a garish blue top with black bows anchoring the straps swings from a pole suspended over one of the display cases. Ladies, young and old, are crowded around both stalls handing over pink bills in exchange for thickly padded bras.

Think of an item you want to buy, I guarantee that someone sells it at this massive nightly street market. Jewelry, toys, watches, movie posters, cell phones, clothes, shoes, they’re all here. An entire section of the maze is devoted to the latest Taiwanese craze, puppies small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and kittens still attached to their mother’s teat.

The real draw of the Shilin Night Market is not its questionable pet purveyance, but its food. The market is the equivalent of an opium den for adventurous eaters and its vendors, iniquitous pleasure pushers. You can get lost for hours in the intoxicating aromas and flavors.

Colorful mounds of tropical fruit wait to be washed and sliced for hungry customers. Dozens of stalls sell variations of the popular drink jen ju nai cha, sweetened black tea with milk and tapioca balls. Vats of hot oil fry small baskets of fish balls, sweet potatoes, and seafood tossed with fragrant garlic and sweet basil.

Little restaurants along the streets serve hotpot and teppanyaki. Unlike the showy, sub-par, and overpriced Benihana version, the spread here reflects the atmosphere—fresh, vibrant and blissfully unrefined. In adjacent shops giant slabs of frozen milk lay on metal wheels fitted with blades. The white sheets, falling like powdery snow, are piled high on plates and covered with multiple toppings. My favorite? Strawberry puree on one side, passion fruit on the other.

The streets of Shilin would delight even the most daring gourmand. Grilled chicken anus, little rubbery brown triangles stacked four to a skewer, tantalize passersby. Fiery red chilies stand out in a sea of black, inch long, stewed sea snails. Braised chicken feet appear to be crawling out of their display trays. The extremities are a gelatinous treat for those who don’t mind rolling tiny toe bones around on their tongue. Venture toward the outskirts of the maze, and you may pick up the faint odor of open sewer. The rank fumes trigger an unnatural curiosity and you begin to sniff uncontrollably, your mind dancing back and forth between several possibilities, each less appealing than the last. Open sewer? Decomposing flesh? Some kind of gory combination? Then you spot the offending stall where all looks innocent enough, chunks of tofu bubbling in a sea of oil. This is the Taiwanese treat chou dofu, stinky tofu. Bean curd fermented in a ripe vegetable and shrimp brine. No doubt it’s popular for good reason, but I can’t vouch for that. In all the years I lived there I was never able to get within two feet of the repugnant treat.

Adventurous eater or not, on any given night the streets of Shilin prepare some of the best food you’ll taste in your life. After being away for ten years I had expected time and modernity to alter this night market, but there she stood like a stunning woman who never ages. Every scent, stall, and twisting alleyway from my memory was there. A pudgy old man, who 10 years ago made the best xiao rou bao in the market, was still carefully tending to the contents of his steaming cast-iron pans. Memories long forgotten flooded back when I bit into those savory little buns. Suddenly, I was a mischievous teenager again, full of ridiculous ideas and dreams sitting on a grubby step in the vibrant city of Taipei.

Caution: Smoking Pot May Cause Inability to Invent a Cuisine

To me vacationing in Western Europe means sitting atop a cliff in Majorca surrounded by the deep blue Mediterranean, feasting on prawns the length of a man’s hand, split from head to tail and grilled over an open fire. Dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. Digging into crisp bottomed paella, bright yellow from saffron, loaded with spicy chorizo and briny shellfish.

Enjoying a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk bistro in Paris. Tearing off a hunk from a still warm baguette and generously covering it with rich liver pâté. Hands hovering over a wooden board loaded with cheese, pickles and charcuterie. The hardest decision of the day is trying to decide between the duck mousse and rabbit rillettes.

Pausing at a hill town in Tuscany to savor a plate of delicate potato gnocchi covered in the most beautiful blanket… shaved black truffles. Dizzy from their pungent earthy charms I begin to fantasize about cashing out my 401K, buying a villa, (in my delirious state my meager 401K has turned into millions) and spending my days staring out at the rolling hills and statuesque cypress trees.

This is the Europe of my past trips. So, when the chance came to spend a week in Amsterdam, I booked a flight immediately. I had been warned that the term “Dutch cuisine” was an oxymoron, but wasn’t too worried. After all, Amsterdam is a short train ride from Brussels and Paris. Surely the French managed to slip some culinary secrets their way. Besides, Amsterdam is famously known for its liberal stance on legalized pot. A city with a perpetual case of the munchies—I reasoned—is bound to have some fairly decent late night snacks.

I was wrong.

If I were using very simple word association to describe cuisines, I would say Korean … garlicky, Indian…complex, Vietnamese…herbal, Dutch….flat. The Dutch food I encountered completely lacked distinct flavor—no acid, sweetness or spice. Above all, it was seriously missing salt. Your palate lies limp. Like a bad marriage bed, it’s present for the act but secretly hoping for a premature end.

I was excited to try the French fries in Amsterdam, but it would seem that French potato magic didn’t make it past Belgium. The Dutch fries are cut thick and smothered with mayonnaise. I don’t know how you can make garlic-herb mayonnaise flop, but they accomplished it with their overly sweet goop.

I couldn’t bring myself to order the popular deep fried skinless meat sausage or breaded meat ragout after the disappointing Dutch fries. Ground meat mixed with flour, breaded and fried like a croquette must be the answer to midnight munchies. On the tourist filled street Leidsestraat, an entire shop consists of hot snacks that can be purchased out of vending machines. A large fry station in the back of the establishment keeps the front machines filled. While this is may be a brilliant answer to dealing with the annoying, stoned tourists, a culinary treat it is not.

Perplexingly, the Dutch don’t lack for quality ingredients. The local market displayed some of the most beautiful seafood I’d ever seen. This left me to speculate on the unfortunate events that must occur on its trip from the market to the dinner plate.

However, all is not lost. If you do find yourself in Amsterdam, and in desperate need to arouse your palate head over to the Peruvian restaurant, Casa Peru. Their lomo saltado— strips of savory beef pan-fried with fries, tomatoes, onions, ginger and cilantro—was the most flavorful plate of food I had while I was there. It had everything other dishes were missing: acid from tomatoes, sweetness from the caramelized onions, punchy ginger and herbal cilantro.

The fluffy homemade bread is served with an olive and sun dried tomato tapenade. You will be fighting with your dining partners for the honor of licking the bowl.

If you’re in the mood for French food—and don’t want to blow a month’s rent for dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant—visit Cote Ouest. Seared duck liver with stewed prunes required a couple generous shakes of salt, but the sweet prunes balanced the liver nicely. Together they make a luscious spread for slices of baguette.

The mussels could use a boost of flavor, perhaps they’ve been muted to suit the Dutch palate. But the French fries are thin, crisp, and thankfully someone in the kitchen knows how to make a good mayonnaise. The classic sole meunière, aided by a lemon wedge and saucer of melted butter, is simple but pleasant. Initially you may find yourself reaching for the saltshaker, but once you adjust the seasoning everything is quite satisfactory.

Perhaps I shouldn’t judge the cuisine before having a chance to enjoy a true Dutch delicacy—herring. I find the thought of buying a raw herring from a fish stall, covering it in onions, cocking my head back and chowing down like a hungry pelican both fascinating and terrifying.

Amsterdam is not a food vacation spot. However, its gorgeous architecture, canals, and people watching make it a fabulous city worth visiting. I will definitely return. However, next time I’ll be sure to tack on a few days at the end of the trip to fulfill some culinary fantasies… in France.

A Curious Man, A Curious Woman: Two Very Different Things

(Visitors who read this blog to learn about working in a restaurant, Asian cuisine and recipes be warned—this post is totally different… I also write about travel and this is what today’s post is about. If you are uncomfortable with words such as” thrusting” and “g-strings”, skip this piece and come back when I visit the subject of tasty food once again)

I shiver as a gust of wind whips around the corner and blows through the narrow alley in which I’m standing. I pop the collar on my coat, attempting to block the icy wind from penetrating and trickling down my back. Red lights reflect off the puddles of rainwater that have pooled in the uneven cobbled streets; their glow is both eerie and romantic. Feet in front of me, behind a large glass window, stands a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy bra and a g-string slid low on her hips, suggesting that it wouldn’t take much effort to enjoy what the two inches of cloth are struggling to conceal.

She’s not alone, there are dozens of these moving window displays. They stand—legs spread—rocking their hips back and forth, twirling their hair, filing nails, talking or texting on their cell phones. Occasionally, one taps on the window trying to get the attention of possible clients as they walk by. Men of all ages and backgrounds mill about. Sometimes they’re alone, but often with one or two friends. They peer into the widows, knock on doors and whisper with the women inside.

Curiosity has brought me to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. I want to know who these women are and where they come from. Do they have families? Are they beautiful? Are they young? Some questions are easily answered. Most are young and beautiful. They look to be from all over, but mainly Eastern Europe. However as these questions are answered, many others surface unexpectedly. Do families live in the gorgeous apartments right above the brothels? The grandmother on the second floor sitting on the sofa reading her book… is she accustomed to the sound of women standing in the doorway negotiating their price with groups of men? How long has she lived here? Did she used to be a prostitute in her youth?

I look in one window and see a woman in a lacy red bra and thong straightening a ruffled bed. I think to myself, “How many men has she serviced there tonight?” “I wonder how long it takes her to take care of one client?” “Does she share that bed with the other woman in the booth or is there another bed behind the tiny bathroom?” I’m fairly confident these are not the thoughts racing through the minds of the men leering at the same scene.

I’m pretty liberal; my attitude is very much whatever-floats-your-boat. But I’m also curious as to why something strikes your fancy, or more crudely but aptly put—gets you off.

There are many reasons why men visit prostitutes, too many to even begin listing, and sometimes I kind of get it. But I don’t really understand what lures young, handsome, educated men, bachelor parties even, to Amsterdam’s brothels where they dole out 50-150 euros to spend five minutes nervously thrusting into a woman who would obviously rather be elsewhere. (Okay, perhaps not all men are nervous, and maybe some of the women are actually happy to be there. Maybe. I would hate to spoil the fantasy with my cynicism).

The issue is far too complex for my little mind to sort out alone. So I asked. Here are the answers I heard. Drugs, could’ve guessed that. Alcohol, yeah no kiddin’. Curiosity, WHAAAAAT?

Now I would say that I’m a curious person… let me take that a step further – I think most women are by nature curious creatures. When we hear a story we immediately ask numerous follow up questions. We love details. The why, when, how, who and any other tidbit worth extracting, we want them all.

Men, not so much. My husband can talk on the phone for ten minutes to a male friend who has just announced that he and his wife are having a baby and the only information that he will come away with is that his friend is “good.” Due date? Didn’t think to ask. The baby’s sex? Didn’t come up. Are they registered anywhere? What’s that?

Okay I can hear the men protesting… “Well I’m not a baby guy. Those details aren’t important to me”. That’s fair. However, I could plug in just about any major life event and the result would be the same. New job. Decision to go back to school. Moving abroad. Engagement. Divorce. I wager that if your lady friend asked you five follow-up questions after a conversation on any of those topics you’d struggle to answer three. And that’s being generous.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that the guys I talked to were lying when they said that it was innocent curiosity that lured young men to Amsterdam’s brothels.

Maybe men and women are just curious in different ways. Women ask for details when we hear a story. Then, we are able to construct the entire experience in our minds with that information. We can recreate a scene or conversation as if we were there.

Unfortunately this sometimes means our curiosity is self-limiting. I’ll eat chicken feet because I’m dying to know what it is about them that Chinese all over the world love. But I draw the line at chicken butt. Likewise, I will never sleep with a 300 pound man out of curiosity to know what it would be like to sleep with someone three times my size. If I think I’m not going to enjoy something based on similarities to past experiences or from details gleaned from someone who has done it then I’m not going to waste my time or money pursuing it. But maybe my chicken feet is some man’s Amsterdam hooker.

Often if men are interested in something they’ll simply go out and try it. Maybe they visit the Red Light District knowing full well that it’s not going to be an earth moving experience, but they’re curious about what it would be like. They can’t imagine it nearly as well, or as easily, as they could just go and experience it for themselves.

I could continue to ponder this for hours but I think I’ll pass this one off to that ambiguous, lazy, but all-too-true explanation. Men and women are just different creatures. I may never understand why hundreds of young men go to Amsterdam every weekend and dole out cash for something they could get for free from the loose women at their local dive. This is a rare instance where I will admit that I would be better served focusing my curiosity elsewhere. This may be one experience I will never understand—no matter how many questions I ask.

 

Tea Eggs, Croquette Burgers, Lassie and Fish Fragrant Eggplant.

There are a few, some may call peculiar, activities that I tend to do whenever I travel outside the US.

One, I canvas convenience stores. 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, whichever has set up shop where I am. I love to see what oddities are commonplace. Tea eggs and cognac at the check-out counters in Taiwan, bento boxes, curry flavored shrimp chips, a plethora of pre-mixed cocktails in Tokyo, and the widest spectrum of fruit juices I’ve ever seen in Koh Samui.

Second, I look at a McDonald’s menu. Go ahead and scorn me. I know you’re thinking, “How can she call herself a food lover and even be in the same vicinity of a McDonald’s?”  Hey, I’m not going for the all organic-haute cuisine options coming out of the microwaves and fryers. The fascination lies in seeing what the super labs of McDonald’s have tested and found appealing to local tastes. Shrimp and potato croquettes instead of meat patties. Beef teriyaki burgers. Setting up shop in a rice loving country? Toss out the bun altogether and replace it with rice patties. When I was in Tuscany last summer, I was disappointed to find much of the food overly seasoned. But after sampling the uber-tested but super salty McDonald’s burgers I concluded that it must be the way Italians like their food (let the stone throwing commence… go ahead, I can take it).

Third, I visit the farmers’ markets. This is always a highlight for me. I love seeing what’s in season. How produce looks in different parts of the world. For instance, carrots in Taiwan and China are 3x the size they are here but the celery is 3x smaller. Beijing has the most amazing mushrooms, size and color wise, than anywhere else I’ve visited. But I was too terrified to venture into the meat section of the market for fear that I’d run into Lassie being portioned out to eagerly waiting chefs. If you don’t speak a lick of the language, or if most of the items are foreign to you, going to a local market alone can be overwhelming. Which brings me to my next activity.

Fourth, I sign up for a cooking class, many of which include market tours as part of their offering. Instructors will bring students to the local market, introduce local ingredients and processes like tofu and noodle making, which can be found at Beijing’s wet markets. So if you’re worried about being the only foreigner in a crowded Chinese market the size of two airport hangers (me at the Xinmin market in Beijing), joining a market tour might allow you to experience much of the same magic, but with a native speaker on your side who can make sense of the orderly chaos.

Taking cooking classes is relatively new to me. It started when I was in Beijing last March. I took classes at two schools, Black Sesame Kitchen and The Hutong.

Both schools are in the old Hutong area of Beijing.  If you’re traveling over there you have to visit, if not for the cooking schools then just to see what much of Beijing used to look like. Tiny houses and doorways open up to an elaborate labyrinth of interconnected courtyards. The streets are so small it’s a wonder cars are able to drive down them at all. On my visit, I found myself gawking at the maneuvering of two cars as they approached from opposite directions as if it were a circus act.

Black Sesame Kitchen was the better of the two schools. A local chef does the cooking demonstrations, while Candice (an American-born Chinese woman) translates, teaches and coordinates the class making communication a non-issue. The class begins with an introduction to the Chinese pantry, tasting and smelling key ingredients. Many of you may think that Chinese ingredients are familiar to you. After all, you buy them in the ethnic food aisle at your local grocery store… Ummm nope. That’s not the same thing. Sesame oil that was pressed at the local morning wet market is COMPLETELY different in smell and taste than the stuff that came off the processing plant over a year ago. Freshly roasted and pressed the resulting oil is smokey, nutty and rich. The smell isn’t muddled by aging oil and additives. It’s pure, tasting and smelling like real sesame seeds rather some kind of complex chemical composition. Anyone who has ever tasted great olive oil or fresh made peanut butter knows the kind of difference I’m talking about.

At Black Sesame Kitchen students receive a print out of the pantry basics both in English and Chinese with suggestions for the best brands of cooking wine, broad-bean paste and black vinegar (go out and buy Lao Chen cu from Shanxi province, it will change your life. Or at least your dumpling eating experiences).

The kitchen and prep area are small but not uncomfortably so. The kitchen has two wok and burner sets. After learning the pantry basics students are given ingredients, wooden cutting boards and cleavers. Everyone gets to work prepping ingredients for the first dish. One of the best parts? Lining up whole garlic cloves and smacking them with the cleavers (makes getting the papery skins off easier) it’s sort of like playing wack-a-mole but in a kitchen… and with a very large knife. Fun but definitely not a skill appreciated in the fine-dining kitchen world I find myself in now.

On the menu that day: Fish Fragrant Eggplant, Wok-Fried Bamboo Shoots, and Twice-Cooked Pork. All delicious, all relatively simple to make. Students prep and the chef tosses together examples of the dishes. Then the chef brings them to the communal tablewhere everyone samples the offerings. Next, each student picks a dish that they would like to learn hands-on. This is your chance to get behind the stove and put everything together. I chose to make Fish Fragrant Eggplant. It’s something I love to eat and unfortunately one that many American-Chinese restaurants love to screw up.

Traditionally the dish doesn’t have Szechuan peppercorns but I added them because I love that spicy numbing sensation that they bring to any dish. (When cooking with Szechuan peppercorns, the trick is to infuse flavor by adding them to your cooking oil, broth or water and removing them before adding the other ingredients.)

After all the cooking is done, everyone sits around the cleaned prep table tasting the different dishes and chatting. Remember, cooking schools are a great place to get restaurant ideas–from other students but especially from the staff. Some of the best food we had in Thailand was at a restaurant suggested by someone at the cooking school in Koh Samui. And if you want to do the market thing on your own, just ask the instructor which one they would suggest you visit.

So, those are my travel suggestions for the day. Next time you’re in an exotic location walk into a convenience store and take some time to look around. Buy the weirdest thing on the McDonald’s menu (or maybe just take a picture of it). Spend the morning at a local farmers’ market. And lastly, take a cooking class. There’s no better way to learn about the local food and take a little bit of that vacation magic home with you.