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In one of my favorite family photos, my brother and I are wearing matching red shirts and are flanking our Yeye (paternal grandpa). We are all grinning behind heaping mounds of freshly stir-fried rice vermicelli with ham, egg, bean sprouts and scallions. A simple lunch at home, home being my grandparents’ apartment in Ho Man Tin that my father grew up in. We were visiting for the holidays and I couldn’t wait to chow down and use my new pair of orange chopsticks, a gift from Japan Airlines on the flight over.
Many of my most treasured childhood memories involve Koi Goo, an incredible woman who lived with my grandparents for over 50 years. She is one of the best chefs I know and learned everything through trial and error. She was hired as a maid when my eldest uncle was born and stayed on to tend to the entire family – no easy task as my grandparents had two boys in succession after my uncle was born, the youngest being my father. With seven individuals to look after – my two aunts were born before the three boys – Koi Goo completed the unimaginable every day: keeping my grandparents’ large apartment spotless, doing all of the housework and of course, cooking incredible meals. I can still recall the sonorous clack of her broom sweeping the floors in the afternoon, or the rush of anticipation I felt when I heard the screech of the gate to our apartment being pulled aside – what treats did she bring home to cook that evening?
Over the years that I visited and subsequently lived in Hong Kong after college, I became close with Koi Goo and I think of her as a grandmother, especially since both of mine have passed on for some time now. I knew that I wanted her to meet Chris, but was unsure of what we would do together considering she spoke no English and Chris’ Cantonese is in the research and development stage. Then it dawned on me – we’d cook together! I didn’t want her to go through the trouble of making a whole meal, which she certainly would have done if I told her ahead of time that we were coming. She is in her mid-90s now and has a full-time helper to assist her with things she cannot do alone anymore. Hence, I called her after lunch, casually mentioned that I was in town and said would come by in an hour or two.
We picked up a giant taro at the market close by Koi Goo’s apartment, and excitedly crossed the street, eager to learn her secrets for making taro puffs. No, these aren’t the kind you get at dim sum that are mashed and wrapped around a mixture of pork and shrimp before being deep fried, although those are yummy as well. I was after the recipe for her shredded taro deep-fried into delicious snack-sized bites. Whenever I met up with Koi Goo, she would inevitably give me a box of taro puffs that she’d fried especially for me. Thus, I often timed my visits for a day or two before I flew back to California. It would take a lot of will power not to gobble up every puff before landing in LA!
When we got to her apartment, we set out to work and for once, she let me. I grated the taro – “not too fine, not to coarse, not too long, not too short” – she said by way of instruction. Clearly, she was a practiced hand. I used an ancient, still razor-sharp grater I recognized from Ho Man Tin. Chris documented the process as I measured out the dry ingredients and fried the small mounds that Koi Goo shaped for me. “Pick up the sesame seeds,” she said as I scooped a puff out of the wok, ever conscious of not wasting any ingredients. Even though she didn’t know I was coming, she had an empty tin box with a sturdy lid, ready for us to pile in our freshly fried snacks to take on the plane the next day. With Chris seated next to me on a 12-hour flight, I had to double my efforts to save some for my family!
Now that we are at home, we’ve tried her recipe and had to modify it a bit, given the tools we have at our disposal. The taste is similar, though, and in a nod to Chris’ New England roots, I’ve included a riff on Koi Goo’s recipe that includes maple sugar.
- 1 pound of taro grated in a Cuisinart, divided into two parts in separate bowls
- Blend #1: 3/4 tsp maple sugar, 1/2 tsp five spice powder, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp white sesame seeds and 2 T glutinous rice flour
- Blend #2: 1/2 tsp white sugar, 3/4 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp white sesame seeds and 2 T glutinous rice flour
- 2.5c Knife-brand peanut oil – Koi Goo’s choice that can found in many large Chinese supermarkets Stateside
Yield: 20-24 puffs
With your fingers, mix together the dry blends with the 1/2 lb mounds of grated taro in a bowl. You should try adding 1T of glutinous rice flour first and seeing if the mixture is dry enough – it should feel just a touch moist. Our taro seemed to have more moisture than most, which is why we added more glutinous rice flour.
Heat oil in a wok over medium-high heat until one shred of taro sizzles and floats to the top. If the shred bubbles around the edges but sinks, it’s not hot enough yet. With your fingers, grab a cluster of shredded taro about an inch in diameter. Drop the cluster into the hot oil and let it fry for 2-3 minutes. With a long pair of chopsticks or a Chinese spider, roll the puff over so the top is submerged in oil. Fry for an additional 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. The puffs made with blend #1 will turn out a shade darker when done because of the five spice. When the puffs are done, take them out with the spider and lay them on a paper-towel-lined sheet. After a few minutes, or however long you can stand not tasting them, pop one in your mouth and enjoy! We had these alongside a gingery soup with beef shank, green daikon and carrot; the textural combinations were amazing!
Our trip to Hong Kong was my first time visiting East Asia. (Awesome!) Furthermore, as I was traveling with a Hong Kong expert in tow, I was beside myself with excitement as the day of arrival neared. Our jumping off point to Hong Kong, the congested, smog-ridden city of Katmandu, made the wait all the more unbearable. Traveling in Nepal and India often involved some sense of uncertainty (will the bus show up? Is there a bus at all?) and I was optimistically gauging a 50% chance that our flight would leave Katmandu at all. Luckily, Cathay Pacific did not disappoint and we left a dark stormy evening in Katmandu for a sunny early morning in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, which I learned means “Fragrant Harbor”, is heaven for those who love food. From the moment we stepped off the plane, there was a wide variety of delicious food options, both healthy and hedonistic. Sik Faan!
Audrey had been filling me in on what we would be experiencing food-wise, but like any new place, one is bound to be surprised. Our first food experience was perhaps one of the most “authentic” (i.e. not what most tourists get to enjoy) meals in Hong Kong, a trip to the wet market in North Point.
My first meal in a foreign country always brings an excited rush of anticipation, and the informal, delicious lunch we sat down to at the Java Road Food Complex hit the spot. If the terms “wet market” and “food complex” don’t conjure up a positive culinary experience in your mind, you need to go to Hong Kong. Many neighborhoods in Hong Kong have a “food complex”, massive, drab
looking buildings that hide a bounty of delicious eating and food shopping options. At the North Point Food Complex, we accessed the second floor via escalator into a huge, white-tiled room with half a dozen noodle and congee businesses. Each vendor’s area was roughly demarcated by an arc of plastic tables and chairs. It was that late-middle part of the morning (around 11am) when most people had certainly eaten breakfast but it was too early for lunch, so we had the place to ourselves.
Java Road Market Complex
99 Java Road between the tramline and Shu Kuk Road
North Point, Hong Kong
Closest MTR: North Point stop, exit A1
Continuing my international quest for the best cup of joe on the planet, we stopped one afternoon at one of Audrey’s favorite spots. Entering a narrow passageway right across the street from the bustle of Times Square, we found Café Corridor, a shoe-box- sized oasis of caffeination. From a tiny compartment to the left of the entrance, hipster baristas concocted delicious espresso drinks, including versions I had never heard of before. A flat white? I learned later that it’s an Australian take on a latte with a layer of superdense milk microfoam. Just the thing to refuel after a hard day of shopping…
26A Russell Street
Tel: +852 2892 2927
Hours: 12 noon – 11pm (Sun – Thu) 12 noon – late (Fr & Sat)
We had been enjoying wonderful Cantonese food since Day One of our visit to Hong Kong, but there is a wealth of other excellent Chinese cuisines available, too. One of the best and most memorable is Da Ping Huo, a small underground Sichuan kitchen run by a dedicated husband and wife team (they cook, decorate the restaurant and sing!). I thought I had tried Sichuan food before, but after dining at Da Ping Huo, I realized that I was a complete novice. Can you say spicy?! We sat down to a prix fixe 12 course meal, where six dishes were “mild” and six dishes grew progressively spicier. Sichuan food can incorporate A LOT of Sichuan peppercorns (which are actually the fruit of deciduous trees, not in fact related to pepper) that create a unique fragrant aroma and novocain-like effect on one’s mouth. The combination with chilies creates a sensation akin to having ones tongue spit-roasted and pickled at the same time. Despite this, the food was incredibly addictive with wonderful combinations of flavors and textures: crunchy soy-nuts, sesame oil, cilantro, celery and green onions complementing chicken, tofu, prawns and beef. We avoided the wine list and went for a basic Chinese lager, which served to temper the heat of the food, at least to some degree. At the end of the meal, the chef sings Sichuan opera! An exciting end to an exciting meal.
Da Ping Huo
49 Hollywood Road
SoHo, Central, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2559-1317
One of the best fine-dining experiences we had in Hong Kong was with Audrey’s aunt and uncle, who are also big foodies (it must run in the family!). They took us to Eighteen Brook, a bright, austerely decorated restaurant that serves a host of excellently prepared classic Cantonese dishes, as well as their own unique creations. Audrey’s Uncle Laurie asked me if there was anything I didn’t eat. Wanting to impress, I said, nope! He apparently took this as a challenge – the ordering took place in Cantonese, so, unaware of how many courses to expect I unwisely tucked into the first few with abandon: eggplant with thousand-year-old duck egg, slightly gooey and intensely savory, fried tofu with hoisin, a delicate combination of sweet, creamy and crisp, and a conch stir fry flanked with flavorful, crunchy carrots and celery. We were enjoying bowls of the extremely rare delicacy bird’s nest soup, when an entire lobster over braised noodles arrived at the table. The crustacean, large and in charge, had to be at least four pounds. Its bright shell glinted with thick ginger and scallion sauce. Audrey gave me a “there is more to come” look and I knew that my stomach was in trouble. Sure enough, salt and pepper fried chicken, delicate bundles of grouper and shrimp paste, and mushroom “abalone” with sautéed lettuce followed the lobster. The last savory dish was stir-fried glutinous rice, a classic, labor intensive dish that creates a deliciously rich mixture of rice flecked with sausage, mushrooms and dried shrimps and scallops. I heroically sampled everything, even going back for seconds on the glutinous rice. Dessert was thankfully light: sweet tofu in a ginger sauce and mango mochi with coconut. I would highly recommend this restaurant, but make sure to arrive very hungry!
Eighteen Brook Cantonese Cuisine
8/F, Convention Plaza
1 Harbour Road
Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2827 8802
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for giving me not one place to call home, but two. Through frequent family trips to Hong Kong, I developed an insatiable desire to move there, a decision most likely made through my stomach. Who could resist congee for breakfast, followed by dim sum and then, wah hai! Is it time for tea already?
A vintage Chinese cookbook that Chris bought for me, Mrs. Ma’s Favorite Chinese Recipes, was dedicated to the original owner in German: “Liebe geht durch den Magen.” Given the “reboot” that our digestive systems experienced in Nepal, I felt extraordinarily happy to land safely in Hong Kong where the best versions of my favorite foods awaited us. This was Chris’ first time to my second home, a place I myself had not returned to for over two years.
After our first bites of zha leung (fried crullers wrapped in a steamed rice noodle and doused in sweet soy sauce) at the Java Road Wet Market, I looked at Chris’ beaming visage lit by the fluorescent tube above, and listened to the dull clatter of his chopsticks making contact with the plastic plate before us. “Anything more, little sister?” asked our server as she set down a bowl of piping hot congee. A rush of pure happiness came over me when I replied that we had everything we needed. Love does indeed go through the stomach.
Although the pace of commerce is faster in Hong Kong than anywhere else I’ve lived in, I was happy to see that many of my favorites were still around. Well, all except for Moon House in Causeway Bay, which served the best black sesame soup mixed with almond soup dessert – the Cantonese version of ebony and ivory living together in perfect harmony. Perhaps they weren’t the current gold standard for the dishes I love, but as a tourist to the Fragrant Port, I’m no longer one to quibble about the strength of one restaurant’s dumplings over another’s noodles. We simply sat back, relaxed, and ate our hearts out for a week.
Herewith is a partial list of my perennial favorites:
The Sing Woo Road Eating Tour
Happy Valley is truly the name of the neighborhood that Sing Woo Road runs through. Supposedly an English surveyor named it as such because he proposed to his girlfriend here and she said yes. Legend has it that the same surveyor proposed to another woman previously and she turned him down. In retaliation, he named the site of this proposal Repulse Bay. Such romantics, those colonialists! There isn’t a close MTR station to Happy Valley so the best thing to do is take a cab from Causeway Bay, which wouldn’t cost more than a few US dollars.
“What you want?” barked the manner-less proprietress of Lotus Garden, one of my favorite congee joints basically at the midpoint of Sing Woo Road. She is what passes for local color in these parts. Her attitude, like her endless supply of elastic band Bermuda shorts, has not changed. The congee is superb and every bowl has a juicy braised shiitake mushroom at the bottom. I almost always order the pork and thousand year old egg congee, but this time I ordered sampan congee, which is difficult to find outside Hong Kong. Sampan is the anglicized name for saam ban (three planks), the wooden skiffs one can still see in operation in Aberdeen and other fishing villages around Hong Kong. There isn’t a set recipe as the fisherman who created this dish basically put whatever they could get their hands on into plain congee, but common ingredients include squid, dried jellyfish, roasted peanuts, and savory clusters of crispy fried rice.
Room D, G/F, 51A Sing Woo Road
Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Pork Chops and Chive Pastry
Up the road is Dim Sum, the site of the famed Battle of the Pork Chops held in July 2005 – thank you to the tasters, Julie, Lung-Chi, Grace, Kirk and Julia! We did not have time for a rematch, but next time we’ll have to schedule one with the next generation of judges in tow: Nico, Lily, Griffin and Evelyn! Dim Sum’s crispy spiced pork chop is still darn tasty and served with a side of rice quickly fried with fresh bok choy. I also love their version of chive dumplings, which are unique in that they are baked in a crust with a consistency halfway between wonton wrapper and shortbread, if you can imagine that.
63 Sing Woo Road
Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2834 8893
Baked Tapioca Pudding
Still hungry? Head to Lotus Garden’s dessert pocket, which has a variety of individually packaged crepes and glutinous dumplings that you can take to go. If you have time to sit down, definitely try the baked tapioca pudding, which is unparalleled.
Lotus Garden Desserts
61 Sing Woo Road
Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2891 5569/ 2832 9931
Wonton Noodle Soup
Also in Happy Valley, albeit a block over from Sing Woo Road, is a branch of Tasty Congee & Noodle Wonton Shop, my epicurean uncle’s top pick for wonton noodle soup. The Hong Kong Tourism Board and Michelin Guide have feted Tasty several times over and there is even a branch at the airport so you can have one last bowl of their springy noodles and golf-ball-sized wontons before take off.
Tasty Congee & Noodle Wonton Shop
21 King Kwong Street, Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2838 3922
Sweet and sour is a flavor combo that many cuisines encompass and thus everyone must agree that it is delicious. If this is so, all future peace accords should be brokered at Lippo Centre Chiu Chow Restaurant. The noodle pie here – quite honestly, I don’t know the true Chinese name, I just describe it to the server every time! – is a pan-fried wonder of noodles served like pizza. Each diner takes a slice and sprinkles it first with sugar and then dissolves the sugar by dripping sweet black vinegar over the top. We have yet to attempt this in our home kitchen this year but if we prove victorious, we will definitely post the recipe!
Lippo Centre Chiu Chow Restaurant
Shop 4, Ground Floor, Lippo Centre, 89 Queensway
Admiralty, Hong Kong
Tel:(852) 2526 1168
MTR exit: Admiralty Station (Exit B)
Shredded Potato Salad
The Beijing-style dumplings themselves are fine and filling at these two dueling restaurants that spy on each other from across the street. The real attraction for me is the shredded potato salad (served at both restaurants) that my college roommate, who studied abroad at Beijing Normal University, first introduced me to. It consists of finely julienned strips of potato that are cooked quickly enough to still be crunchy, and then doused with sweet black vinegar. An ingeniously simple combination that I am attempting to recreate as we speak – recipe forthcoming!
98-102 Wellington Street
Tel: +852 21218006
MTR: Central, exit C
69 Wellington Street
Tel: +852 25259018
MTR: Central, exit C
For flaky egg tarts, my favorite place is Honolulu Coffee Shop, which also serves a killer cup of milk tea and pineapple bun. The branch in Central was fortuitously located across the street from my former office so we had many, many desserts from here. For Portuguese egg tarts, we tried Lord Stow’s in the Excelsior Hotel for the first time, which was good. If you can’t make it there, an easy option is going to KFC, which has partnered with Café e Nata, the famed egg tart maker based in Macau. I actually prefer these to the ones at Lord Stow’s.
Honolulu Coffee Shop
G/F, 33 Stanley Street
Central, Hong Kong
MTR: Central, exit C
Lord Stow’s served at EXpresso at the Excelsior Hong Kong
281 Gloucester Road
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2894 8888
MTR: Causeway Bay, exit D4
Ginger Milk Pudding
The silky consistency of this dessert immediately takes me back to childhood when my mother would prepare steamed egg custard, carefully lifting up the lid every minute to release excess steam and ensure even cooking. Yee Shun’s cornucopia of steamed desserts is served in the rice bowls they were cooked in and are not too sweet. Another favorite here is the “double skin” milk pudding, an effect achieved by curdling whole milk and letting it cool, which leaves a skin floating on top of the milk. The milk in each bowl is carefully poured out from under the skin. The second skin is created when a liquid mix of egg, sugar and milk is poured into the bowls with the first skin still in it, and then steamed. The Causeway Bay one is very popular, so much so that they were out of the souvenir mugs that I wanted to buy. The cashier said that they would be back in stock in a few weeks, and in the meantime, I could purchase Yee Shun paraphernalia at their Kowloon locations.
Yee Shun Milk Company
G/F, 506 Lockhart Road
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2591-1837
MTR: Causeway Bay, exit C or D4
G/F, 513 Nathan Road
Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon
Tel: +852 2374-5460
G/F, 63 Pilkem Street
Tel: +852 2730-2799
G/F, 246-248 Sai Yeung Choi Street South
Mong Kok, Kowloon
Tel: +852 2393-3301
Mango Chunks and Juice with Coconut Milk
This is my favorite drink at the ubiquitous fruit juice and snack shop called Hui Lau Shan. I have been known to slurp one down in less than 10 seconds, brain freeze be damned! The website is in Chinese only but there are a few dozen locations all over Hong Kong. The best thing to do to find the one most convenient to you is to Google “Hui Lau Shan Hong Kong.” Alternatively, on a break from shopping, go to the one on the Shibuya-esque mega crossing in Causeway Bay across from Sogo, which is where this picture was taken.
These can be found quite readily throughout Hong Kong at street snack stalls, but the one we stumbled upon on Nathan Road happened to be quite famous and has eight locations and counting. Make sure you ask for a fresh one, which will be given to you in a wax paper bag with holes punched out of the sides so the steam can escape. The special manual-flip waffle iron allows for the waffle to be half cake-like and half crispy – the best of both worlds in one bite!
Lee Keung Kee Egg Waffles
78 Nathan Road
MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui, exit A2 or B1
Nepal is a country that we wished we had researched a lot more before we went – we were unprepared for many things. We had romantic, perhaps antiquated notions of Nepal when we planned our trip. While it was not what we expected, we learned a lot about what it means to be a good traveler in every sense of the word. However, simply saying “expect the unexpected” won’t get you through a dark alleyway after a meal of bland chicken soup, so here are O&A’s tips on visiting Nepal:
1) We stayed at Shivapuri Heights Cottage (www.shivapuricottage.com) for two nights, which was perfect and we wish we’d been there straight from the airport rather than heading into the hot mess that is Kathmandu. Run by Steve Webster, an old Nepali Hand and his wife, Neeru, the property is perched on the outer edge of the Kathmandu Valley looking down into the city so you’re above the air pollution. You will be treated like family here and the travelers we met were all lovely – a young English couple beginning their ‘round the world honeymoon, international school teachers on reconnaissance for a school trip there later. Steve’s uncle started the legendary Tiger Tops, arguably the first company to make Nepal widely accessible as a tourism destination. If you’re looking for a safari or other
adventuresome experiences, checking out their website is a good place to start – www.tigermountain.com.
2) One of the highlights of our time in Nepal was being in a small monastery during the afternoon prayers, which we never realized were basically the monk equivalent of homework. The monks filed in, many of the younger ones with one eye on the goofy foreigners in the corner, and then proceeded to recite mantras. Later in our trip, went to a much larger monastery, which felt a lot less authentic, even though they both seemed to be funded by deep pockets outside the country. Peering into the monks’ quarters in
the bigger one and seeing Playstations was disheartening, but I guess even monks get the yen for some GTA-style escape.
3) Trekking – make sure the trek you choose is right for you and talk to the company on the phone or even better, in person, before you go. The company we went with was recommended by Lonely Planet and sent us on a three day trek with two employees that looked very young and were green to the fact that it is a good idea to tell your clients what they will be doing and what to expect rather than walking in complete silence for days. Of course we asked questions about the things we saw or
when lunch would be, but in a country where I’d say that the staring problems that foreign women can get is on the severe end, it is a lot more reassuring to know that the people guiding you state upfront that they know what they are doing and can therefore take care of you. We later expressed our opinions to the trekking company and to their credit, they gave us a partial refund and were grateful for our constructive feedback. This led me to really value countries with strong tourism organizations who make their presence known by accrediting guides and companies or putting their seals of approval on lodging and eateries that meet their standards. This is something that is lacking in Nepal, oddly, where tourism is a key industry.
4) Be prepared for a significantly less varied diet in the country than whatever you may have experienced at a Nepali restaurant overseas. Certainly this is true of many countries – you won’t find any self-respecting restaurants in
Japan that serve yakitori, sushi and shabu-shabu – but it is especially stark in a country that is agriculturally isolated from its neighbors and even the more fertile regions within its borders. So BYO pepper grinder, furikake, favorite Boite a Espice blend!
5) “Nepal is like India Lite,” said our friend Erica upon our return. We begged to differ. It’s India Dark. At night, always have a headlamp or flashlight – electricity is rationed and you will see very few lights on after sunset, even in Kathmandu. It is no exaggeration to say that some alleys are pitch black and you can easily get lost if you don’t know where
you’re going or bring your own light source.
6) Make sure you know the value of taxi rides before you get into one. We always asked the concierge of our guesthouses about how much rides would cost. Taxi drivers also try to become your chauffeurs for the day. As we were only using taxis in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, we easily found taxis in each location to take us where we wanted to go so there is no need to have a driver wait for you unless you are going to more remote areas.
7) We found the level of English fluency to be higher in Nepal than in India. Oftentimes in India, people would say they didn’t know what we were asking, but it was clear that they didn’t comprehend what we were saying. In Nepal, most people seemed to understand what we wanted and
were able to give us useful information or directions to someone who might know. Whenever we found someone who seemed exceptionally knowledgeable, we asked a few more questions on other topics that helped us become more comfortable with the country as a whole.
8) We didn’t fly anywhere within Nepal as it was high season so spots book up quickly and the weather can be iffy in any case. If you are flying anywhere, be sure you have at least a day’s cushion on either end, or at least travel insurance, as dangerous flying conditions in the Himalayas caused some internal flights to be canceled for three days straight while we were there.
Traveling through southern India was easily the most stimulating part of our trip. All the images of India that might come to mind greet you the moment you step out of the airport. Intense heat, heavy air pollution, deafening traffic noise, and vibrant street life are the overriding similarities we experienced in the urban areas we visited. We seldom felt as if we wanted to spend a prolonged time outside due to the sheer shock on one’s system. Friends and acquaintances living in India tell us that you become accustomed to the sensory overload eventually, but as travelers passing through, getting inside was a welcome respite. Plus, for those of us with bellies not yet hardened to the innumerable bacteria seeking to bring us to our knees, eating inside a restaurant or in a home is the only safe option. The street food stands selling dozens of delicious looking fruit juices and the buzz of activity around the tea stalls certainly looked enticing but I learned the hard way on a previous trip to India that the short pleasure of a mango lassi of questionable origin is not worth the pain it might wreak on one’s body shortly thereafter.
Inside, away from the hustle and bustle of the street, was our haven to discover the wonderful culinary treasures of India. Both in the restaurants we dined in and in the home-cooking class we took in Mysore, we were able to experience new and fantastic food during our whirlwind tour of southern India. Below are the highlights:
Mavalli Tiffen Room (Two Locations: St. Mark’s Road and Lal Bagh Road, Bangalore)
This Bangalore institution opened in 1924 and has been serving classic dishes from Karnataka, such as dosas and idli ever since. Dosas, the any-time-of-day meal of large, thin pancakes of fermented rice and black lentils stuffed with potato, onion or a myriad of other vegetables and starches are fantastic here – filling, flavorful and extremely reasonably priced (a hearty meal for two will run you about $6). MTR is also well known for their line of pre-packaged food products developed in the 1970s and they claim to have invented the rava idli, made from a combination of fermented rice and semolina. A must-visit on any trip to Bangalore.
Traveling by car on the highways of South India can be a painfully slow mode of transportation, given the very loose road rules in effect (Stop lights? Traffic circles? Crosswalks? Who needs them!) Luckily, there is no shortage of roadside eateries if hunger pangs prove too great to wait for your destination. On a road-trip from Bangalore to Mysore (120 kilometers, 3-4 hours!), we experienced one of the best breakfasts during our time in India. At a busy roadside restaurant packed with families taking break from the stresses of driving, we chowed down on uthappam (a pizza-like flatbread with tomatoes , vada (savory donuts made with lentils and rice) and idli (a spongy, savory cake of steamed fermented rice and black lentils possibly originating in Indonesia) served with coconut chutney and sambar. All washed down with several cups of bittersweet South Indian coffee. The perfect road-fuel!
Shaila’s Cooking School (Mysore)
On an otherwise discouraging trip to Mysore, Shaila’s cooking school was a bright star. Shaila has been running her cooking classes from a small, but meticulously organized kitchen for years and has developed a dedicated following amongst the foreign yoga students visiting Mysore. We spent a whirlwind four hours preparing 10 different dishes that reflected the bounty of vegetables and cooking traditions of Southern India. From light refreshing curd rice, to spicy semolina upma to rich, creamy vermicelli kheer, Shaila’s recipes were flavorful, healthy and often surprising. Who knew that beets played a prominent role in South
Indian cuisine? Out of deference to Shaila, we will not be posting her recipes here without her acknowledgment, but they were all delicious and a trip to Mysore would not be complete without a taking a cooking class or two.
Shaila’s Cooking School
1015/A 9th Cross, 3rd Stage
Near Doctor’s Corner, Gokulam, Mysore
Tel: +91 2513265/+91 9886653001
Sheesha (Roof Top Shoppers Stop Linking Road Bandra (West), Mumbai – 400 050)
Sheesha specializes in North Indian food, but the method of cooking and the combination of flavors we experienced there was a true thrill and deserves to be mentioned. With 360-degree views of the city of Mumbai and an open kitchen with flames shooting dramatically out of a wood burning oven, the environment makes for an exciting meal. The food itself matched the setting, with richly flavored dishes such as smoked pomfret with garlic and cloves, black dal simmered overnight on a charcoal grill with tomatoes and ginger and Lucknowi-style tandoori mushrooms encrusted with black pepper. In a city as intense and crazy as Mumbai can be, it’s a good balance to know that the city also has some of the best restaurants in India. The experience at Sheesha was certainly worth the hassle of Mumbai public transport to get there.
Where are the Chinese?
Something we noticed with some degree of puzzlement was the proliferation of “Chinese” cuisine in metropolitan areas of India where no Chinese immigrants were to be found. A good fifty percent of the restaurants we visited specializing in Indian food had a solid selection of “Chinese food”. Great, right?
Not so fast. After trying a few dishes, we realized with dismay that what Indians consider Chinese food is something quite different than what we are accustomed to. Some quick research revealed that “Indian Chinese food” is a very popular style of cooking that developed with the influx of Chinese immigrants to Calcutta a century ago. It spread from there to many large cities in India such as Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore. As with any cuisine in which the original creators are not present, Indian Chinese food is adaptation of Chinese cuisine to suite Indian tastes. Imagine adding turmeric and yogurt to a traditional stir-fried vegetable dish and you start to get the idea. If you are craving authentic Chinese food in India, you might have to catch a flight to Hong Kong to satisfy the desire.
For those not familiar with Southern India, you might be interested to know that instead of chai, a small cup of “filter coffee”, a mixture of strong brewed drip coffee and chicory blended with milk and plenty of sugar, is the caffeine of choice.
While very unique, it was not the most inspiring cup of joe we had sampled on our trip and so one of the unexpected pleasures of spending several days in Bangalore was discovering the vibrant café life of the city. Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed to be everywhere which, for a dedicated coffeephile like myself, was a pleasant surprise. At first glance it seems as if the mega-chains have a firm stranglehold of the Indian upper-middle class coffee market with the ubiquitous Café Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza strategically placed in convenient spots throughout the city. While Café Coffee Day offers a clean, friendly spot to sip an okay, expensive cappuccino, I wanted to challenge myself in finding an independent or at least less cookie-cutter place to sip coffee in Bangalore. Here are three spots I found to offer a relaxed atmosphere and great coffee:
Café Noir (2nd Floor, The Collection UB City, 24, Vittal Mallya Road, Bangalore)
Located on the roof deck of the massive luxury mall in the UB City building, Café Noir has a French bistro-style menu, with a large and impressive selection of pastries and French artisan cheese. If you want to feel completely removed from Bangalore, this is your spot. The steamed milk based coffee drinks here are their forte.
Ice & Spice (22 St. Marks Road, opposite SBI, Bangalore)
St. Marks Road is home to a bevy of restaurants and eateries and Ice & Spice was apparently one of the first. More a fast food joint than café, Ice & Spice nevertheless brews a good cappuccino and offers a cozy spot to sit and watch the busy street life of St. Marks Road. Indian cafés seem fond of making spectacles out of their coffee drinks (imagine a dozen plus versions of a Starbucks Frappacino, each grander than the previous and you will start to get the picture), and this place would be good spot to experience this unique culture. The well-brewed cappuccino I had here was what made me a fan, however.
Mocha Coffee Bar (25/2 Lavelle Road, Bangalore 560001)
On a winding, vegetation-filled section of Lavelle Road, Mocha Coffee Bar is almost invisible, nestled amongst the greenery. I was pleased to find that they offer 18 different kinds of coffee from all over the world, in a personal French press or a generous bowl of café au lait. I tried a cup of Monsoon Malabar, a coffee not often found in New York which was brewed to perfection. Although they are a chain with multiple locations throughout India, the Mocha on Lavelle Road offered a relaxing setting and did not feel commercial. They also have a large menu of continental foods (and hookas!) which I did not have the opportunity to sample. Top Pick!
Try the wine! – That is, if you know it’s been decently well kept. I asked for a bottle of red and upon tasting, I realized it had been cooked just by being left out. I asked if it was stored in a refrigerator and the haughty waiter said, “Only white wine needs to be refrigerated.” Oh and by wine, I don’t mean the local moonshine!
Sula, the vineyard owned by our friend Rajeev, is ubiquitous and offers an intriguing example of terroir. Sula’s Zinfandel rosé has an interesting note of salinity followed by a subtle creaminess that definitely lets the taster know that this rosé was made far from France. Their wines are available at some restaurants in New York, including Jean-Georges’ Spice Market. I had Sula’s Chenin Blanc at a restaurant called Mint in Midtown and its zippy citrusy edge went perfectly with the curries my friends and I ordered.
Light switches and plugs – is this an electrician’s nightmare or triumph? A hotelier told us that structures are wired this way so rooms will always have plenty of electricity options. However, judging from number of the switches we flipped that did nothing at all, perhaps future contractors should adopt to the less is more school of thought.
Go to Goa! – Or your idea of it in India. There are scores of questionable “ashrams” and “resorts” so depending on where you want to go, try to get someone on the phone versus going purely over email or online recommendations. A hotel we had booked in Mysore seemed lovely online and the correspondence was swift and professional over email, but when we got there, we were dropped off at a cheap-looking motel and greeted by a teenager whose nametag read “Intern 001”. However charming it was to see 001 reset the router with a broomstick in an attempt to get us wifi, his efforts were always for naught and we got the hell out of there after one night. But of course you can trust what we are about to
recommend below…with a grain of salt as we’re not responsible for your enjoyment. ;)
We flew to Goa from Bangalore and stayed in Panjim one night, which was decent as far as former colonial outposts go, but had we known that the restaurants would be mostly closed or have only a fraction of their menus available as it wasn’t “the season” yet (arbitrarily set to begin November 15th annually), we would have gone straight to Mandrem. Mick Jagger has been going there for ages so we figured we’d probably like it. We stayed at Villa River Cat, a cute place run by Renu,
an Indian man who insisted on calling every man staying on his property “Baba-ji.” The animals that live here are happy and well looked after; you will be as well. Renu learned how to cook via remote teachings and suggestions from his mother when he was living in Europe and homesick for her food. He tries to offer dinners to his guests every now and then but these are closely guarded affairs as he doesn’t want non-guests to show up. Unfortunately, he didn’t cook a
meal while we were there but he did teach us how to make Aloo Gobi on our last morning, and on our last night, he drove us out to a bustling restaurant for dinner and then to a popular beach to watch the Diwali celebrations going on there.
Bucket Showers – sheer genius. You really do only need about 5 gallons of water to take a shower; this has been proven by the dual bucket method common across India. In many showers, you will see a five gallon bucket with what appears to be a four-cup measure hooked on the edge of the larger bucket. Fill the big bucket up with water and proceed to splash water over your body with the four-cup measure. This saves water and reduces shower time to less than five minutes. Cold water decreases this timing even more!
Autos – can’t stand them, but can’t get anywhere without them. A friend who lives in India told us that auto drivers zoom around without checking their gas meters. When they run out of gas, they hook one leg around the frame of another auto and that guy is now in charge of dragging your auto to the nearest gas station. We never saw such a symbiotic feat but I believe it – India seems to be the incubator of all nonsensical ideas that work just well enough to become common practice. You may want to bring ear plugs or a face mask to shield yourself from pollution from other vehicles, not to mention the noise:
But try keep your camera on hand because you may come across this type of scene, an impromptu parade that we saw on the third day of Diwali:
Shipping goods via FedEx – Leave plenty of time to do this. The FedEx employees are very thorough and literally examine both sides of every napkin in a set of six, sometimes twice. This is aggravating to witness.
Broken Sidewalks and Overpasses – I was so busy looking at the ground that I didn’t notice this glorious piece of architecture spanning Residency Road! For some reason, the sidewalks are modular in Bangalore – each slab is a few feet wide with a few holes in it, presumably so workers can lift them up and access whatever is down below. This seems ingenious, but as a result, many of the slabs are wobbly, uneven and downright dangerous to walk along. On some particularly neglected stretches, the slabs resemble Stonehenge so keep one eye
on the ground and one on the sky; you never know what pedestrian salvation you may find.
Delicious Airline Food Exists! Jet Airways has the best airline food we’ve been offered so far. I’ve Hoover-ed every ceramic container of food that’s come my way from Jet – veg and non-veg are both excellent. I haven’t had the Western cuisine and on some of the short hops, such as the Goa-Mumbai flight, only Indian cuisine seems to be offered. The Mumbai-Bangalore flight we took earlier in our trip departed at 3pm but we were still served a full lunch, also a nice touch. The best part is the delicious mango pickles, which Chris doesn’t like so every time we’re fed inflight, I get a double dose of eye-watering sourness. Yum! Jet Airways, if you’re reading this – Namaste. How about an upgrade next time so we can taste your business class cuisine?
We’re going a tad out of order here – Chris’ magna opus on South Indian cuisine is forthcoming but until then, here is an entry regarding our last day in India. More on our Grand Asian Voyage to come!
On our previous trips to India, Chris and I were fortunate to be traveling with Vassar in his case, and in mine, for my previous employer, a luxury travel company. One crucial element was provided for both of us – logistics. Thus we were able to enjoy the wonders of the Subcontinent without fretting about where we were going to have dinner or being endlessly hounded by touts. How I pitied the dreadlocked, didgeridoo toting backpackers I saw getting off buses in rural locales, greeted not by signs with their names but a swarm of unrelenting drivers or knick-knack sellers.
DIY India is a much different matter. The chances of having a pleasant day are much slimmer when you have to fend for yourself on every account – will the taxi driver drop us off in the fun part of Chor Bazaar, or will he drop us off in dead lawnmower /trash-eating goat alley? And should we just be thankful that we’re in mower/goat alley at all, because he could easily not speak English and/or know where he’s going? But these types of experiences, while stressful, have made us better travelers and hopefully more patient people. They are what we will look back on in years to come as the moments that defined our Grand Voyage.
India, like New York, is best observed on a sliding scale – the glimmers of goodness equal or outweigh the mountain of hassles that, on bad days, can break you. On our last day in India, we decided to spend the morning having coffee from down the street, carefully mapping out each location we wanted to go to and calling them to make sure they were open. In this way, we hoped to minimize unpleasant surprises, and be properly caffeinated if the time came for a head-waggling showdown. Jai ho! The places we went to are all walkable from each other, meaning the only taxi rides you’ll have to take are to Kala Ghoda and back if you are staying far from there. Kala Ghoda means black horse; the banner above is a local landmark and perhaps a stand-in for the original Kala Ghoda, the statue of King Edward VII mounted on a horse that is now displayed in the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in central Mumbai.
Our first stop was an early lunch at Trishna for what a local friend describes as “glorious seafood.” I had been here once before but this visit had me singing Hallelujah after every soul-restorative mouthful of Hyderbadi pomfret and lentils. While Mumbai was the most aggravating place we went to, the food was definitely the best we’d had in all of India. I can still taste the crunch of caramelized black peppercorns on the fish matched by the delicate, silky flesh below. We didn’t make a reservation since we got there early; the business lunch crowd arrived around 12:30pm. I’d definitely make reservations for dinner.
Birla Mansion, Sai Baba Marg (next to Commerce House)
Kala Ghoda, Fort
Tel: 022/2270-3213; 022/2270-3214, 022/2270-3215
After lunch, we stopped in FabIndia, a must on any shopaholic’s trip to India. It’s a wonderful place to pick up gifts and housewares that you will be complimented on for years to come. Yes, it’s in every guidebook and you can probably get better deals at flea markets, but that brings up the whole hassle issue, which we wanted to avoid. The multi-story location in Kala Ghoda was the largest FabIndia we visited, but selection still varies from store to store. This one definitely had the most clothing and accessories but we saw more furniture at a store in Bangalore. Even if you’re not interested in buying, stopping in can be a welcome sanity break.
137, M.G. Road, Kala Ghoda, Colaba,
Mumbai – 400001
Ph: +91-22-22626539, 40
Hours: 10:00 am to 8:00 pm daily
After checking a few more people off our Christmas lists, we felt emboldened and sought out Britannia Café, a Parsi café mentioned in TimeOut Mumbai. Unfortunately it turned out to be a total dump; we didn’t even want to walk in. It is incredible how so many travel guides romanticize places – CNNGo calls it “a crumbling testament to Mumbai’s once-thriving Parsi café culture” by way of recommendation – that are completely unpalatable in person. If the choice is between eating no Parsi food or having it in dilapidated environs, I choose the former. It is located in a business district called Ballard Estate so I suppose most of their clientele are office workers or loyal customers.
We retreated to Kala Ghoda Café, which is located across the way from Trishna, for coffee and a refreshing glass of mint lemonade. For such a small place (there are probably 15 seats) the menu is surprisingly large with salads, snacks, sandwiches and desserts served from lunch onwards. There is a separate breakfast menu. It took awhile for our beverages to come out, though, so if you’re going for food, I imagine there would be an even longer wait. The ginger ice cream is wonderful and locally made; cookies should be given a miss. Most of the non-Indian coffee sold at Starbucks knock-offs is very expensive and not great but Kala Ghoda’s java, with an authentic cap of milk foam, is worth it.
Kala Ghoda Café
10 Ropewalk Lane
Mumbai 400 001
Phone +91 22 2263 3866; +91 98 3380 3418
Hours: 0900 to 2345
We wandered back up MG Road and spent about an hour in Gallery BMB. At the time, they had hung a show on diaspora artists, which was a fantastic primer into the world of contemporary Indian art in a variety of media. The gallery is big enough such that even if you have only a passing interest in art, it would take a minimum of 15 minutes to see everything, which is more than I can say about a lot of other commercial galleries anywhere. There is also a nice library/shop/café there to rest and ruminate on what you just saw. We didn’t have time for Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, another well-regarded space located just upstairs from BMB, as we were rushing to a documentary.
Queens Mansion | Ground Floor
Next to Cathedral (Middle) School
G. Talwatkar Marg
Fort | Mumbai 400 001
p – +91 22 6171 5757
Chemould Prescott Road Contemporary Art Gallery
Chemould Prescott Road
Queens Mansion | 3rd Floor
G. Talwatkar Marg
Fort | Mumbai 400 001
t : +91- 22- 22000211 / 2
f : +91- 22- 22000213
e : email@example.com | firstname.lastname@example.org
The one thing TimeOut Mumbai was right about was the fact that Max Mueller Bhavan, the local Goethe Institut chapter, shows films. And being Germans or people who work for them at least, whomever updates the website uploaded a calendar of events for the current month – amazing!
We saw a documentary called Dharavi, Slum for Sale, directed by German Lutz Konermann. Dharavi focuses on a variety of characters: a developer named Mukesh Mehta who has a plan to re-develop Dharavi, which just happens to be on prime real estate; Rais Khan, a widowed tailor and slum dweller who cannot make ends meet for himself and his two children; Soni Shrivastavas, a resident of Dharavi who had to drop out of school as her family could not afford tuition for her and her siblings; and others related to the slum, from political candidates to lobbyists. The place was packed and people sat on the floor and in the aisles. The scene I found most affecting was one where Soni was helping her sisters get ready for school – off they went in their plaid uniforms, with their hair neatly plaited and stiff rectangular backpacks. How many did I pass daily, not knowing that they slept in a makeshift hut with a corrugated iron roof?
During the Q&A after the screening with Konermann and Bhau Korde, a well-respected, long-term resident of Dharavi, there was some tension in the room as a group of Indian film students was clearly rubbed the wrong way by the fact that a foreigner made a film about a hot-button topic on their home turf. “There are a lot of movies made about Dharavi, and yours says nothing new,” said one clad in a Gucci-logoed baseball cap. I can understand the feeling of being undermined in one’s own home, of feeling misrepresented somehow. But the fact that this documentary exists, I think, is a healthy by-product of our world order. First world countries have the means to fund filmmakers in making documentaries about the third world that receive international distribution as a result. There are many causes that would go unknown were it not for the existence of grant-giving foundations headquartered far from Dharavi’s sea of blue tarpulin roofs – ironic that Brahmins’ homes were once painted the same hue to signify the gentry within. While it is true that there are numerous documentary efforts about Dharavi, both for film and television, clearly the slum is home to stories that need to be told. Even after reels of footage have been shot and cut, an actual solution for giving slum dwellers the resources they need to survive and thrive remains lacking. “Why not let Dharavi develop as it is?” asked Konermann. A question that still has no answer.
Max Mueller Bhavan
K Dubash Marg
Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001, India
Tel.: +91 22 22027710
Fax: +91 22 22873826
After our minds were fed, it was once again time for our stomachs. We had tried some street eats at the highly touted Swati Snacks a few days earlier and upon our friend Rajeev’s recommendation, we went to Elco Arcade for another helping of the dishes we shied away from sampling on sidewalks. The taxi driver asked for directions twice and I presume the second direction-giver he asked was so exasperated with explaining something simple that he got into our taxi and rode with us to Elco, which was just a few blocks away. When we got out, he did as well, and said we made a good choice for dinner. Hurrah!
Once there, we ordered Bhel Puri, Pani Puri, Tava Aloo Chaat and Dahi Aloo Chaat. We were flying in the dark somewhat, but Bhel Puri is to our knowledge the most common of Mumbai’s street foods so we had to order that to compare it with Swati’s. With its combination of puffed rice, crunchy, diced vegetables and tangy sauce, Bhel Puri is like jumper cables to a weary palate – should you be suffering in a place with bland food, it should be Bhel Puri to the rescue! Pani Puri provides the same effect with different ingredients: fried mini puffs of unleavened bread (puri), sprouted beans and nuggets of curd that you can pile onto a spoon and dip into the sauces provided. The pistachio kulfi was a little disappointing but otherwise the day was absolutely perfect. As we packed our bags, we smiled at the unexpected feeling of wishing we didn’t have to leave for Nepal.
Ramdas Nayak Road,
Santosh Nagar, Bandra West
Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
This was my second visit to Ghent, a town I thought would be nice to retire in a decade ago when I was last here. Perhaps I had a different view of what retirement entailed as a younger one as the city seems to have become a lot busier in the 21st century. Its charm is still readily apparent; the streets bustle with bicyclists of all ages, sleek trams and compact cars. We saw a young woman dressed in boots and a skirt rolling her suitcase along the cobblestone street as she biked around a corner with one hand on her handlebars. I can only think of one city where such a feat is possible, and that city is Ghentacular!
We stayed at the quaint Onderland Logis (Rabotstraat 62, Tel: +32 9 228 85 38; www.onderland.be/onderland/index_nl.html), located in a renovated 19th-century coach house owned by a family that lives in another wing of the expansive property. Formerly, they had an art gallery here so the only signage you will see on Rabotstraat says “Onderland Galerie.” Knock at the heavy, unmarked door here and wait for someone to open – don’t worry, you are at the right place! For this reason, it is important that you phone ahead to inform Onderland of roughly what time you will be arriving. They are in a quieter part of town but only a 10-minute walk from the main canals and stretches of good restaurants. The family also maintains a property in the Ardennes, a region in southeastern Belgium rich in beer culture.
We walked from Gent-Sint-Pieters train station to Onderland, which took 20 minutes of map-checking and meandering. On the way back to the station, we took De Lijn tram line #1 as the stop is across the street from the lodge. There is a ticket machine at the stop so you can buy your fare then. We’ve read that if a stop has a ticket machine, the conductor will not sell you a ticket so be aware!
Stroll through Werregarenstraat, the famed alley of legal graffiti with an ever-changing cast of characters. On our visit, we saw Optimus Prime! Styles vary but subject matter veers more towards tame and cutesy. A number of well-known wielders of spray cans have multiple works in the city so a fun way to see the city is to hunt for works by specific artists.
We unfortunately didn’t have time to do this, but on my last visit, I climbed up probably every cathedral tower that it was possible to climb as it was warm and I needed to work off several cauldrons of moule frites. Try to time your ascent on the hours that the church carillon is being played as you may be able to see the professional behind the chunky keys at work. The batons, as they are sometimes called, are depressed by fists instead of fingers, which makes live carillon performances interesting to watch as well as hear.
Melanie’s World (Corduwaniersstraat 7, Tel: +32 498 102 633) – “I know my beers,” proclaimed who we assume is Melanie. At the time, Chris was staring with his mouth agape at her selection of his favorite beverage. The world of Melanie is indeed a fascinating one filled with items such as Singaporean sesame oil, nasi goreng mix, Skyflakes (the Filipino version of saltines), Indian cinnamon bark and a top-notch selection of beer. On the evening we went, she was pouring an interesting red blend from South Africa which we sipped while chatting with her weathered, modern-day Rembrandt-looking partner. The next day, he nodded to us from his bicycle as we passed each other on Groentenmarkt – always nice to be recognized!
We were on Groentenmarkt to stop by Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent (Groentenmarkt 9, across from the outdoor green market) for a Very Important Mustard Mission. The famed condiment is made on the premises from a centuries-old recipe and thus we had to buy a bottle. Stupidly, we bought the second smallest container, a mere 4 ounces! Perhaps one fine day there will be a Ghent-Brooklyn Mustard Tunnel a la the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel: idlewords.com/2007/04/the_alameda-weehawken_burrito_tunnel.htm. For now, we will savor the supply we have and attempt to recreate the secret recipe, which is a combination of stone-ground brown and white mustard seeds with salt and vinegar.
Blondeel Lederwaren (Donkersteeg 17, tel: +32 9/2333005), across from Gwenola, a cute place where we lunched on Brittany-style crepes, was where Chris bought his man bag by the curiously named German brand, Aunts and Uncles. This was the only store we saw throughout Europe with a financially and fashionably palatable selection of masculine carry-alls. They carry a wide-range of luggage and handbags for both sexes and the enthusiastic, knowledgeable girl working there also added to the experience.
Not far from the graffiti on Werregarenstraat is Hoogpoort, which has a number of good boutiques. The Skunkfunk purse that Chris bought for me at Cream (Hoogpoort 9, tel: +32 9 224 0085) has been complimented the world over and is the perfect size for me as it comfortably fits my cell phone, wallet, digital camera and datebook. The men’s section unfortunately suffered from Carhartt overload; when we were there, it was literally the only brand they carried. But across the street there was an outlet with more brands and significantly slashed prices to boot.
Kaas Mekka (Koestraat 9, tel: +32 9 225 83 66) was the best cheese shop we found in Ghent.
We noticed that outside of Brussels, most Belgians were more willing to speak English than French so we were able to easily converse with the cheesemonger here and appreciated her spot-on recommendations. If you’re feeling brave, try Herve, which we had sampled earlier in Bruges. This was one of the AOC Belgian cheeses we tried – let’s just say that it raised the adjective “gamey” to new heights.
“What language do you speak?” asked our bemused Turkish waiter after Chris placed his order in an eager stream of French, German and English. After weeks of eating purely continental European food, we were dying for something different. We wandered to Oudburg (10 minutes’ walk from Onderland) where we found Ankara (Oudburg 44, tel: +32 9 225 78 18). Oudburg had a number of non-European restaurants on it, including a Mexican cantina and a Moroccan place. Of the many things we ordered, our favorite was the moussaka.
We thought we were true travel geniuses when we came across Le Baan Thai (Corduwaniersstraat 57, tel: +32 9/2332141) down an alleyway and across a beautiful courtyard, but then we saw the Michelin stickers on the window and accepted the truth that others knew about it before us. I guess only restaurateurs with great confidence in their product can be located where there is little foot traffic. However, Ghent is the sort of city where you can venture down almost any alleyway and find something of interest. We had dinner at Le Baan Thai, which was completely full when we arrived but the hostess was somehow able to seat us quickly. The food was full-flavored and spicy; we were thankful for the liter-sized expensive bottle of water our waitress set down. Another reason to go here is to observe the endlessly entertaining, spritely waiter who sashayed between the tables and presented a wine bottle as if it was the Holy Grail. Dinner theater!
It wouldn’t be a trip to Belgium without chocolate. Like Johnny Depp in “Chocolat”, my favorite is hot chocolate and Huize Colette (Belfortstraat 6) makes a lip-smacking cup of the rich stuff. We double-indulged and got a mug of hot chocolate with Maltesers melted therein. They have a number of different types of chocolate that you can order and also offer breakfast and pastry items, some made with Tierenteyn mustard. If you can read Dutch, this is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon as vintage books and current magazines line the walls.
The industrial chic Gruuthuis (Grote Huidevettershoek 10, tel: +32 9 233 68 21) was opened a year ago and serves mighty tasty brews made from a blend of spices and plants instead of hops, or gruut. Before hops were discovered as a key beer-making ingredient, gruut was a commodity that made the families who controlled the market extremely rich. Bruges’ beauty is due to the wealth of the burghers who made their home there. Gruuthuis seems to be in an up and coming part of the city where matte metal siding blends in with traditional stone Flemish architecture. There aren’t as many shops here as of yet so there’s less traffic, making this part of town a great area to bike around when the weather is good.