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Taking the subway to Singapore

Written by Chaz on 15 July 2012

In the middle of April, I went to New York to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion with my mother and a few friends, as we do nearly every April and December when the show is in New York. The show was great — in fact, one of the best I’ve seen — but for blogging purposes, the events before and after were more significant.

On my way down to New York from Boston on Saturday morning, I was trying to coordinate plans with Vernie, who was planning to come to the show with us. She revealed that she was planning to spend the day at Singapore Day, an event for overseas Singaporeans being held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The event even included chefs flown in from the most popular hawker centers in Singapore, Vernie said. I called Emmy right away and told her to scrap whatever she had planned for the day. This sounded like an event we couldn’t miss.

IMG_8892Singapore loses tons of its citizens to other countries, not least because it’s such a small country, and as a result, the government goes to great lengths to keep the diaspora connected to the homeland. And it appears to work. Vernie was super excited to go to Singapore Day, and as soon as we got there, it was clear she wasn’t the only one. People had come from all over the country for this event. In addition to hawker center chefs, the Singaporean government had also brought in Singaporean celebrities, who were performing on an enormous stage surrounded by exhibits about how great life in Singapore is. And lest you miss the point, the entrance gates to the event were modeled after the fare gates on the MRT, with big signs reading, “Welcome home.” Though Emmy and I were probably not their target audience, we nevertheless felt a bit like we were making a triumphant homecoming to our favorite tiny island nation.

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By the time Emmy, her roommate Dana and I made it to Prospect Park, the event was in full swing, and the food lines were already long. We immediately jumped in the roti prata line, which was one of our favorite foods in Singapore. Perhaps it was because it’s not actually a complicated food item, but it was just as delicious as I remembered it in Singapore, with a small fraction of the journey.

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Our next stop was at the penang laksa booth. We had only had this Peranakan dish’s cousin, katong laksa, during our time in Singapore. Penang laksa is more sour and less spicy than katong laksa, and even though I didn’t enjoy the flavor as much, it did take me right back to the plethora of noodle dishes we had in Singapore.

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Our next dish was rojak, which we had in Singapore as a side to the katong laksa. The rojak suffered the most from being 10,000 miles from home. I remembered it as crunchy in Singapore, but this was soggy at best, and rather than being spicy and sweet, it just tasted overwhelmingly of soy sauce.

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Our final dish, of course, was the mystery, the wonder: chicken rice. By this point in the afternoon, we were quite full, but we nevertheless recalled our professional training on assessing the quality of chicken rice and dug in. Simple in its elegance, chicken rice did not disappoint.

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After sitting for a while and enjoying the sun and entertainment, we headed back to Manhattan for a breather before heading to the show, where we met my mother. Afterwards, we made our way to Ngam, a new Thai restaurant that Emmy had chosen for us. At this point, we had been joined by Ben, Diana, her boyfriend, my mother, and a friend of hers, and had become a somewhat unwieldy group of eight — the benefit, of course, being that we could order more dishes. After a bit of an ordeal as we attempted to claim our reservation, during which we observed the open kitchen, we were seated.

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Emmy was quickly deputized with ordering for the entire table, and before long, we were showered with appetizers. Ngam is a Thai restaurant, but they take a bunch of liberties from tradition, which was immediately noticeable. Our appetizers included a crab cake, sweet chili chicken wings, a papaya salad topped with strawberries and cashews, “Chiang Mai fries” made from pumpkin and sweet potatoes, and spring rolls with noodles and mushrooms. Nothing was familiar, but everything was fantastic.

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After some ordering confusion with our main courses, we ended up with quite a selection. One of our favorite dishes in northern Thailand was khao soi, a spicy coconut milk curry that includes both soft noodles and fried egg noodles with which we had recently become reacquainted when we came across it in suburban Boston. Ngam had a new variation on the dish: instead of the more traditional chicken, they had prepared it with lobster. It was delicious.

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Our other dishes included curried vegetables, a curried duckling with lychees and pineapple, crispy chicken laab, and a shrimp pad thai that featured papaya instead of noodles. Everything was just one step away from a dish we were familiar with, making each dish a new, innovative twist on an old standby. For me, the lobster khao soi and the papaya pad thai were the real standouts. The duckling and crispy laab were a bit fried for my preference.

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We headed back to Emmy’s apartment for the rest of the evening, having reenacted a couple of the cuisines of our trip to Asia using only the New York City subway system.

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From the PCH to the freeways of LA

Written by Emmy on 2 October 2011

We woke up in Pismo Beach on Thursday morning, packed up the tent and headed into “downtown” Pismo for a quick stop at Old West Cinnamon Rolls before hitting the road. The spot had been recommended by one of our books, so naturally we obliged and ordered one with pecans and one with almonds.

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Continuing our drive, we passed through Lompoc, where nearly three-quarters of the world’s flower seeds are grown, and drove by an enormous air force base. We drove through the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where we gave ourselves a self-guided tour. We parked in Santa Barbara and took a brief stroll along the city’s historic State Street. We considered taking a hike into the hills but the morning fog was still obscuring the view. So instead, we went to lunch.

We were far enough south to get authentic Mexican food and so we visited the acclaimed La Super-Rica Taqueria, a brightly colored but tiny restaurant on a street filled with tacos.

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Always eager to prove that we can, in fact, handle spice like the natives of any cuisine, we ordered a selection of authentic items from the menu and enjoyed them with a triad of homemade salsas. Chaz tried two different types of taco, while I sampled two less common items — chorizo super rica, a baked casserole meant to be wrapped in tortillas, and a spicy bean gordito.

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From Santa Barbara we drove to Ventura, where we stopped by the visitor center for the Channel Islands. Channel Islands National Park is, as the name suggests, in the middle of the ocean. Even though we couldn’t visit the actual park, Chaz still got a stamp in his national parks passport.

From Ventura, we continued down the coast on Highway 1. The scenery was still beautiful, though far less isolated than the hills we’d driven by the day before. We passed through Malibu and its oceanfront homes and eyeballed a few more beaches before turning off PCH in Santa Monica.

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From here we hopped from freeway to freeway. I have never seen so many highways in one place before, and they were all SO FILLED with cars.

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Back in an urban metropolis, we conducted a few errands. Chaz’s pillow was a casualty of our stay in the Bay Area, so we headed to IKEA in Burbank to pick up a new one. We visited the first ever Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, where Joe himself apparently shops. And then, because it’s hard to resist a giant supermarket, we strolled through the largest Whole Foods I have ever seen.

After another hour of freeway driving, we arrived at our friend Joanna’s house, where her parents graciously hosted us for the evening. We showered and did laundry, the simple luxuries of life, and had a delicious dinner of steak, quinoa, roasted peppers and fresh corn with the Wohlmuths. We ended dinner with fresh figs, which were incredible.

We unpacked and repacked Dorothy, filled her with gas and headed to bed early in order to prepare for our big drive the next morning.

Sampling the grapes of Napa

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

When we arrived back at our campsite Saturday night in a bit of a food coma from dinner at the Ahwanhee, we were shocked to discover that our seemingly quaint campsite was pretty much at the base of a campground mudslide brought on by the rain and hail earlier that day. Our tent had been splattered with mud on all sides, an issue we decided to ignore until the next morning. So on Sunday we rolled each piece of our sleeping apparatus into separate garbage bags and, as soon as we got cell service, began Googling for tent cleaning techniques.

After our muddy adventure, we were in the market for a hot breakfast. What we really wanted was Seaplane Diner, but since a drive to Providence would have added a few more miles to the odometer than we were prepared for, we settled on the first establishment we found: PJ’s in Groveland, Calif., not too far outside the park. I had a mixed veggies omelet while Chaz opted for a more unusual creation, a chili omelet. After indulging in PJ’s unlimited coffee, we were ready to hit the road.

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The three-hour drive careening around mountains on two-lane roads was a good reminder of just how far removed the beauty of Yosemite had been.

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After traversing several of California’s many highways, we arrived in Napa at the appropriately named Chardonnay Lodge, our kick-off spot to a day and a half of wine tasting. Gabi, a friend of Chaz’s from high school, drove up from San Francisco to partake in the adventure. After showering and returning to a hygienic state, we set off.

Our first stop was at Gott’s Roadside, a destination lunch spot in Napa. The burger place is connected to a farm further up the coast, where much of the food comes from. Gott’s was previously named Taylor’s Automatic Refresher and gained acclaim in food magazines, blogs and TV shows. It was apparently a major controversy when the name changed a few years ago.

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As we read the menu, we informed Gabi of several rules. There would be no duplicate orders, everything was to be shared and the bill would be split evenly. We settled on three very different items: fish tacos with Mexican slaw, salsa and jalapeño cilantro sour cream; a spicy chicken sandwich with avocado, Mexican slaw, cilantro sour cream and jalapeño mayo; and a blue cheese burger. (OK, so there were some accent overlaps.) And because the stand is best known for its burgers and fries, we added on an order of sweet potato fries. Everything was delicious and full of flavor.

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Full of food, we were ready to begin our oenophiliac journey.

We began driving up Napa’s Highway 29, which is lined with vineyards on all sides. Everywhere we turned, there were more grapes! The whole scene was a bit overwhelming, so we tried to attack our wine tasting agenda with some organization. Chaz was the most experienced vineyard visitor of the group and so he laid out his criteria. We needed well-priced tastings at beautiful vineyards conducted by pleasant sommeliers. Armed with our usual cadre of guidebooks, we began to make choices.

Our first stop was at V. Sattui, a giant vineyard regarded for its food shop, wine museum and extensive grape selection. The basic testing allowed each person to sample five different wines from a list of twelve different varieties. Thinking we had bested the system, we ordered three tastings and rather than each only try five wines, we ordered all twelve and passed them down the line. We decided that the final tasting could be each person’s individual favorite. (The checkpoint is nothing if not a little OCD.)

Guided by Don, who was a bit sassier than what we were looking for in a sommelier, we made our way down the list, sipping dry whites, sweet whites, table reds, harsh reds, dessert wines and ports. We asked questions about things like sweetness and blend, but mostly we just passed the glasses and made comments about the accents we supposedly detected in an effort to seem like real wine experts.

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Unable to deviate from what I know I like, I chose the driest of the whites, a riesling, for my fifth glass. Gabi got the bang for her buck and chose the port, which gets its intensity because it’s mixed with brandy, something I never knew. Chaz was going to opt for the port too, but in accordance with previously stated checkpoint rules, did not duplicate an order and instead had a blended red. After downing our final tastes, we bid Don farewell and stepped back into the sunlight.

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Our next stop was at Mumm, a vineyard noted for its sparkling wines. This visit offered some of the beautiful scenery element so crucial to a good tasting.

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IMG_4602In recovery from our marathon with Don, we decided to split one tasting of the vineyard’s three most notable sparkling wines. The first two were both dry, though one was white and one was a rose. The third was much sweeter, although not as sickeningly so as I was expecting. Plus as a perk our wine came with crackers, so we made a big show of cleansing our palettes between tastes. Very important.

Despite the beautiful scenery, we didn’t linger too long at Mumm. Napa vineyards end tastings on the early side — most are shut down by 5 p.m. — so we wanted to make sure we could fit one more in. Our third vineyard was thus chosen because a sign out front proclaimed they had tastings until 6.

As a total bonus, our mystery third choice was actually two vineyards in one. The tasting room offered selections from Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, plus when you bought a tasting, bonus free samples were included. Several glasses later, we had maxed out on our wine sampling abilities for the day.

Our biggest challenge yet

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We awoke on Friday at 4:15 a.m. sharp, immediately jumping out of our sleeping bags excitedly (yeah, right) to strike camp, pack the car and brew a much-needed pot of coffee. Our plan was to spend two nights in Wawona, in the south of the park, and two more in Crane Flat, in the northwest, closer to our eventual destination of San Francisco. Unfortunate scheduling meant that this change of camp coincided with our day on Half Dome. But even so, we were out of Wawona by shortly after five, and as I drove us back into Yosemite Valley, Emmy served a light continental breakfast and began packing our backpacks.

All told, by the time we arrived at the parking lot at Curry Village where we left our car, our two packs contained no less than:

  • Six Clif bars
  • Two bags cashews (assorted)
  • One bag Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a snacking essential
  • Two apples
  • Two peanut butter sandwiches
  • Two tuna sandwiches
  • Eight Oreos
  • Two packs chewing gum
  • Two containers chicken sausage and vegetables, leftover from dinner
  • Eight water bottles
  • Two raincoats
  • Two sunblocks
  • One hat
  • One extra shirt
  • Two lip balms
  • Baby wipes, without which the checkpoint does not leave home
  • Wallets
  • Phones
  • Flashlight
  • Toilet paper

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we realized that we had made a huge mistake. There was a parking lot closer to the trailhead than the one in which we had left Dorothy, adding a total of about three-quarters of a mile to our day’s already-long journey. But we soldiered on, walking through the forest to the actual trailhead at Happy Isles and setting foot onto the trail at 6:35 a.m. Not too bad.

The first part of the hike took us up the John Muir Trail, an alternative to the thousands of stone steps we had descended the day before on the Mist Trail. Though slightly longer, we figured switchbacks were a much better way to ascend than stairs. By 8:30, when the sun really started hitting Yosemite Valley, we had already gained thousands of feet and had a beautiful view across to Nevada Fall.

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We veered off our route from the previous day onto the trail up to Half Dome, taking a short detour through a backpacker camp that enabled us to make the hike, usually almost entirely out and back, into a tiny bit more of a loop. As it turned out, hiking is a pretty tiring business, and long before we made it to the summit, we were more than ready for lunch. Or, at least, round one of lunch. We stopped for our tuna sandwiches (never have I had such a delicious tuna sandwich experience) as we gained even more elevation.

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The trail grew ever steeper as we approached Sub Dome, Half Dome’s much smaller sibling which sits immediately north of it and looks like a little bubble growing out of its side. At this point, the hike, which had seemed to be flying by in the first couple hours after we left Curry Village, began to drag. But at long last — about 11:30 a.m. — we arrived at the permit checkpoint, and chose to mark this joyous occasion with a frank discussion with the two rangers of the various ways in which we could die on Half Dome. “Honestly, most of the rescues we do are actually body recoveries,” one told us. (Just before we left on our trip out west, the New York Times ran an article about the growing death count within Yosemite’s bounds. This article, along with our previous day’s warning about lightning-caused death, really set the tone for our ascent.)

We began climbing the steep, winding granite stairs up the side of Sub Dome, and after a few exertion-filled minutes, arrived at its narrow but flat summit. Already, the views off to the north were spectacular.

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Soon after, we found ourselves face-to-face with what we had been dreading all morning: the infamous Half Dome cables.

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The cables stretch up an extremely steep granite face to cover the final 400 feet of Half Dome’s immense height. I had trouble picturing what the cables were going to look like, but that was because we were missing a key fact: The cables are connected to steel poles which are bored into the granite, and above each set of poles is attached a wooden two-by-four. As you pull yourself up to each set of poles, you can balance yourself, and nearly stand, on each two-by-four as you wait for the person in front of you to clear the next two-by-four. These pieces of wood totally answered my question. You’re never actually hanging off the side of the mountain by a little cable; you’re pulling yourself up to the next place where you can pause a second. And when traffic is heavy, you can expect to wait quite a while at each two-by-four.

As we starting ascending Sub Dome, Emmy started freaking out a bit about what was to come, and while I remained more stoic at that point, I too start to lose my calm as we picked out gloves from the enormous pile at the bottom of the cable and began to make our ascent. It was, in short, terrifying, not least because of the continued lengthy waits as people above us climbed, which we spent perched on the side of the rock clutching on for dear life. Not to even mention that it was becoming quite clear that the advertised storms were somewhere in the area, though it was still blue skies over Half Dome.

But once we got to the top, and heaved ourselves off the ascent onto Half Dome’s flat 13-acre surface, I forgot all my fears and all the effort we had expended as I took in the amazing view.

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IMG_1074We stopped for a quick picnic of our leftover chicken sausage, which we’d like to think is among the more gourmet of meals served on top of Half Dome, and for pictures. But we could see storm clouds rolling in off in the distance, and we were reminded that the cables act as lightning rods during a storm. (Is that not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?) So, after a brief celebration of what we had accomplished, we headed back to the cables. I think both of us were almost more worried about descending, even though it would clearly be physically easier, but I realized as soon as we started that it was really no problem. Again, the two-by-fours were the key to the whole system.

We ended up making it off the twin domes safely, and sure enough, it started raining about half an hour after we reached tree cover, though very little rain fell on us. (Fortunately, we had packed our raincoats — see above.) The nine-mile slog back to our car was arguably more difficult than the ascent since we were so exhausted. Simply the pain in my feet was more than enough of a reason to stop. We opted for the Mist Trail again, so thousands of stairs and a few miles after that later, we made it back to Dorothy, who was truly a site for sore eyes.

We drove north out of the valley to Crane Flat Campground, where we hastily set up camp and fixed an appetizers course of chips, hummus, guacamole and a few well-earned cocktails. Emmy once again mastered the camp stove to produce a delicious dish of pesto-filled tortellini and roasted eggplant in marinara sauce.

IMG_4355Though we had long lost the light required for photography, here’s the dish in its lunch reincarnation.

Despite being essentially on the ground, I don’t think I’d ever fallen asleep so quickly.

Singing along

Written by Chaz on 1 September 2011

I began my last full day in Stockholm with the ultimate trip down memory lane: a return to my apartment in Sundbyberg, just outside Stockholm in the direction of Spånga. Erik and I took the tunnelbana to Duvbo, and despite having been up the station’s escalator hundreds of times, I was still impressed by its height and length.

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As two years prior, the front door of the apartment building was unlocked, so we went right in to the first landing and saw the door of my apartment. Having done just about enough creeping, we walked down to the center of Sundbyberg and hopped the pendeltåg into Stockholm.

I had two errands to take care of in Stockholm before starting the day’s touristing. First we stopped by the Stockholm tourist bureau to buy a map of the city’s ABBA tour, a gift for my friend Joanna. And second we stopped by an office building downtown to drop off a copy of my friend Vernie’s fantastic senior thesis for her Swedish host family.

IMG_3672In the last two years, Stockholm has added yet another means of public transportation: the spårvagn running from Sergels torg down to Djurgården. And in fact the spårvagn ended up coming in handy quite a few times during my visit. We hopped on at Sergels torg and rode all the way to the end of the line, Waldemarsudde, the former home of Prince Eugen. The prince, himself an artist, spent some of his life in Italy and brought back art, and his house is now a museum of his collection, temporary exhibitions, and the house and grounds itself. The weather was fantastic, and our walk down to the museum past the cruise ships, Baltic ferries and pleasure craft was spectacular.

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After exploring the museum and its grounds, we rode back up to the Djurgården ferry and headed over to Slussen. Once again, the views across to central Stockholm were fantastic.

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We walked from Slussen down to Fotografiska Museet, the photography museum, which is new since my time in Stockholm. The museum, perched right on the Baltic by the ferry terminals, was terrific. In particular, I really liked the exhibit of Liu Bolin, a Chinese photographer known as the invisible man because of his knack for painting himself right into a photograph.

We took the tunnelbana up to Odenplan to meet Erik’s friend Jasmin, and as it had begun to rain a bit, we made a beeline for dinner at Ramen Ki-Mama. Both Erik and Jasmin are in Stockholm University’s Japanese studies program, so it was only fitting. It was my first ramen since our ramen in Hong Kong, and I have to say, it compared very favorably. The near-natives approved too, which is worth something.

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After dinner, we headed back to Djurgården for a Swedish tradition: “Allsång på Skansen,” a one-hour singalong at Skansen, Stockholm’s outdoor museum, that features well-known Swedish musicians and is broadcast live on Swedish public television. The songs, all widely known in Sweden, are available in a little book, and the host says the number of the song they’re going to sing so that you can find it in your book. The TV broadcast also has the lyrics at the bottom of the screen, karaoke-style. The show had a new host this summer: Måns Zelmerlöw, a pop singer who rose to fame from Swedish Idol and Melodifestivalen. The show also had a “web host,” Anton Lundqvist, who, I was shocked to learn, is younger than I am.

We had seen the show on TV at Lögla, and since the show is free to attend after you’ve bought a ticket to Skansen, I thought it would be pretty cool to go. We arrived a few minutes before the show’s live broadcast began at eight, and immediately wished we had allowed more time.

IMG_3723The line to buy Skansen admission tickets.

But we did make it inside in time, and while our viewing spot wasn’t optimal, I had a pretty good view thanks to my height. I was really glad we went! There was a huge crowd, and lots of people had brought signs. It was also a beautiful evening — the rain held off — and the view from Skansen out over the city was great.

IMG_3768Above: Måns and Anton, and a whole lot of blond heads. Below: the crowd at Skansen and the view over the city.
IMG_3771IMG_3822IMG_3794IMG_3804Above: Erik, Jasmin and the Allsång lyric book; and Allsång‘s youngest, most excited fan. Below: Måns singing a Killers song after the broadcast ended, and an excited fan.
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Allsång was also interesting to me culturally. I can’t really imagine the U.S. having an equivalent, not least because there aren’t that many songs that the whole country shares as folk knowledge. Sweden is a small enough country that this kind of thing is possible. The show also reflects Swedes’ well-deserved pride in their country and its capital. The show always opens with a song called “Stockholm in my heart,” really a love song to Stockholm.

After the show ended around 9:30, there was still plenty of light, so we took a walk through the Nordic animals section of Skansen, checking out the foxes and the bears. Exhausted, we took the spårvagn back to the central station, where we parted ways with Jasmin and headed back to Spånga. Another wonderful, busy day in Stockholm.

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An introduction to the sights and tastes of Singapore

Written by Emmy on 4 July 2011

Months ago, when we first began planning our trip to Singapore, Vernie created a very lengthy list of all of the foods we non-negotiably had to try while in her hometown. For a three day trip, it seemed like we would be eating nonstop. With four days, it was marginally more reasonable — as long as we stayed on mission. We also had quite a few sights to see. So starting on Sunday morning, we began crossing things off of our food and sights list with gusto.

We started the day by visiting a tall building to take in views of the city. You may note this quest to see cities from high up has been a trend throughout all of our travels. Up above the city, we could see everything from the Singapore Flyer (the ferris wheel) to the protected heritage buildings to the giant Marina Bay Sands casino, which looks like a spaceship taking off from the top of a building.

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The Singapore skyline is filled with apartment buildings that have a very distinct look. These are HDB flats — apartments subsidized by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. The vast majority of Singaporeans live in these apartments, due to the astronomical cost of housing. You have to be married to apply for a subsidized HDB flat, and so many twenty-somethings get engaged in university in order to put themselves on the waiting list.

From our high-up perch, we could also see Malaysia: just a short car ride away!

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Once we had taken in the views and taken an inordinate number of photos, we went to try one of Vernie’s favorite foods and one of Singapore’s noted dishes: prawn noodle. Singaporean food is influenced by the many different ethnic groups who live on the island, including people originally from China, Malaysia and India. Culinary influences from all of China’s different provinces have left their mark on Singapore, as have generations of intermingling between the various groups. One of the popular types of food in Singapore is classified as Peranakan, a blend of Chinese and Malaysian influences.

Known in Chinese as hae mee, prawn noodle is one of these blend dishes, truly only found in Singapore.

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The noodles and prawns are served in a soup, which has a distinctly shrimp-like taste to it. Chili powder can be added to taste, along with fresh chilies for a serious extra dose of kick. We ate our noodles with lime juice, a popular local drink which provides a real contrast to the shrimp and the spice. Vernie and her parents showed us how to attack our soup like locals: you peel the shrimp with your fingers and chopsticks, throw the peel onto the table and then dip your shrimp in soy sauce and chilies.

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After finishing our delicious lunch — which also included an assortment of items, such as fish cakes, fish balls and fermented egg, to be dipped in a chili sauce — we began our walking tour of the city. We started on the aptly named Arab Street, which is filled with shops selling Persian rugs and reams and reams of fabric. In the center of the area is an old mosque and the palace that housed the Malaysian sultan when Singapore was unified with its neighbor. Briefly ruled by the British, Singapore has been completely independent since the 1960s.

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After a brief walk-through of Arab Street (mostly spent under a shop awning due to a flash thunderstorm, which thankfully ended almost as suddenly as it started), we headed for the MRT. Like in Hong Kong, the subway stations in Singapore seem to be connected to shopping mall after shopping mall. Something about having a 90-degree climate all year round must have inspired this building pattern, where “air con” is a necessity at all times. Inside the many malls and stations are massive food courts, with each stall peddling a particular item.

The first thing Vernie had us try was takoyaki, a traditionally Japanese snack. Takoyaki are little dough balls, baked and stuffed with everything from octopus to mushroom and cheese. Kind of like the Asian version of a crepe. Before being served, they are of course drizzled with chili (among other toppings).

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Another must try item was a curry puff. The stuffed puff tasted entirely different from the many versions we had tried in Thailand.

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And because aspects of the food court scene started to make us a little homesick, we tried some frozen yogurt. Before you begin taking wagers on how much weight we must have gained in Singapore, please note that all of these tiny snacks were split three ways. Our general rule on this food-driven voyage was, order everything and just take a bite. It was the only way we could have ever have hoped to accomplish all the items on our epicurean to-do list.

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Following our parade of snacks, we paid a visit to Orchard Road, the epitome of a shopping mecca. The street is packed with fancy mall after mall, each containing the highest price designer stores. It seems like each mall contains the same stores as the next, but each is packed with eager shoppers.

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We explored several fancy malls before heading to the basement of the newest and fanciest one, ION, to check out — what else — its food court. We made a beeline for a particular favorite stall of Vernie’s in order to cross another item of the eating list: beef noodle. In Singapore, noodle dishes are either served dry or as soup, and those that are served dry come with broth on the side. “Dry” is not necessarily the best description, since the noodles often come in a sauce. Beef noodle comes in a dark sauce, a heavier dish than those we ate in other parts of Asia.

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Following our epic eating afternoon, we went for a very very long walk.

Singapore is filled with construction sites, evidence of a rapidly expanding and developing city. The building projects are particularly evident on the coastline, where buildings, bridges and walkways have sprung up dramatically in recent years. In the midst of the new development is Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion, a giant statue of a half-mermaid half-lion who spits out water.

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IMG_0973We walked a giant loop before coming face to face with the rocketship-shaped Marina Bay Casino. The enormous building is home to a fancy shopping mall, Venice-like canals, a hotel and the largest casino I have ever seen. Singaporean residents have to pay $100 to enter the casino, but foreigners get in for free — the government’s not-so-subtle way of indicating that Singaporeans should keep their money and let the visitors fork it over. Vernie waited for us while we used our American passports to take a quick peak. They scanned them carefully as if we were going through customs in an airport.

Photos are not exactly permitted inside the casino, but it was a little too decadent not to capture on film. Plus we wanted to show our Singaporean hosts a glimpse of what’s on the inside. The photo at right shows about a quarter of the casino floor, which is ringed by a balcony filled with card table after card table.

We walked the perimeter of the casino and then left, showing our passports again in order to exit. We relocated Vernie, located the nearest MRT station and headed back to her apartment for a nice relaxing swim. It’s a very hard life.

NOTE: There’s going to be a whole lot of food discussed in the Singapore portion of our blog. We may have been instructed in school that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but the article about Singaporean cuisine provides a fantastic primer on all the things we ate, all the things we wished we could have eaten and the items we were happier not to eat at all.

Literature, puppets and motorcycles

Written by Chaz on 29 June 2011

After our amazing lunch at KOTO on Wednesday, we headed across the street to the Temple of Literature, a very old Chinese temple compound in the heart of Hanoi. We took a few minutes to explore the temple grounds, the last of many, many temples we saw in our time in Asia.

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After cleaning ourselves up a bit at our hotel (I have never sweated like I sweated in Hanoi), we took a short walk around part of Hoan Kiem Lake to one of Hanoi’s best-known tourist attractions, the Thăng Long Water Puppetry Theater. This northern Vietnamese tradition dates back to the 11th century, and there are still four performances every day in central Hanoi. I think all the guidebooks’ praise of the show had overhyped it a bit, though, because it ended up being a bit of a letdown.

Yes, the puppets are jumping through a ring of fire. Apparently this complies with Hanoi fire code.

We took a short walk from the theater to one of Hanoi’s best restaurants, Wild Rice, which focuses on Vietnamese cuisine. Its sister restaurant, Wild Lotus, has taken a more international tack, combining pan-Asian specialities with Western influence. We started with another Vietnamese chicken salad and prawn and cashew spring rolls.

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The salad was just as phenomenal as the one from lunch, and it inspired me to try to find Vietnamese salads back home. Unlike Thai salads, which were mostly vegetables even if they contained seafood or meat as well, this chicken salad was primarily chicken, more like Western composed salads. Combined with vegetables and Vietnamese flavoring, this made for a very different texture than the salads we had been having. The fried spring rolls, though delicious, were somewhat unremarkable. One of the pitfalls of traveling to the other side of the world for amazing food is that fresh food tends to stand out much more than fried food, even if the latter is also state of the art.

We moved on to pork with chili and lemongrass and prawns in peanut and tamarind sauce. We also wanted a vegetable, but our waiter said our choice, an eggplant dish, wasn’t their best, steering us to another eggplant item that also had pork and proved to be as hearty as either of our other entrees.

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The pork dish exemplified the difference between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and was almost a return to some of our food in Hong Kong. The meat was tender and flavorful, in the same cooked-in manner as the spicy Szechuan chicken we had, though with a very different taste. The accompanying vegetables were fresh and tasty as well. The sauce with the prawns was tangy, not spicy, but without becoming overly sweet. The eggplant was a full-bodied dish, with a delicious sauce and ingredients.

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel, and nightfall made Hanoi’s thousands of motorcycles seem even more dramatic. We managed to get some good shots of them, too.

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Dreaming of lakeside tai chi and spicy salads, we were asleep moments very shortly after returning to our hotel.

The center of the action

Written by Chaz on 20 June 2011

On Tuesday, our last full day in Bangkok, having obtained a good map, we set out to explore the center of downtown: Siam Square and its surroundings. After breakfast at our hotel, we took the Skytrain to the Siam station, where the train’s two lines intersect, and descended to street level to explore the mazes of little shops and stalls selling every possible good, every day of the week. From one entrepreneur’s stand, we heard the unmistakable strains of Bad Romance, performed by someone significantly more mellow than its original artist. Six dollars later, we had a CD of fifty different American songs that had been smooth-jazzified by various Thai artists.

Before long, we grew hungry (it happens remarkably quickly here), and we made our way to a huge food market. It appeared to be Bangkok’s answer to Whole Foods’ prepared food section.

Though the food was slightly more expensive that some other food stalls we’ve had the pleasure of buying from, we ended up with an amazing lunch consisting of spicy glass noodles with pork, tom yum noodles in soup, what we believe was chicken and noodles in a basil chili sauce, and a delicious cranberry apple smoothie without spending ten dollars. We ate at a long row of tables that were busy enough to necessitate a vulture-like approach to finding seating. I was reminded of the tables at the center of the Reading Terminal Market in my beautiful hometown of Philadelphia.

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We began the afternoon by exploring Bangkok’s three upscale malls, which are conveniently located next to each other and connected by skywalks. Each is full of fancy, boutique shops and various Western brands, and each has its own branch of the iStudio chain, which looks and feels exactly like an Apple Store. After checking out fine clothes, chic decor, and table after table of random English books, we took a long, unpleasant walk through central Bangkok to the less upscale shopping centers. After a hot, crowded walk along a narrow sidewalk made even less passable by street vendor after street vendor, we arrived at Pratunam Market, the city’s wholesale clothing outlet, where hundreds of stalls were selling underwear, tuxedos, sequin suits and everything in between.

We crossed the street and headed to Pantip Plaza, the city’s technology mall. I’ve never seen anything like it: five floors of stores selling every conceivable technology item, each less trustworthy than the one before it. There were stores selling iPads that weren’t the right size, stores selling software in paper sleeves with the title written on in magic marker, and stores whose only items were cell phone cases in every color and design imaginable.

After cleaning up at our hotel, we ventured out again on the Skytrain to Lan Na Thai, reputed to be one of the city’s finest Thai restaurants. Named after the former northern Thai kingdom, the restaurant is part of a beautiful complex designed in traditional Thai architecture that also includes an Indian resturant, a Japanese restaurant and a spa. Our dinner, though in too dark a setting to produce beautiful photographs, was phenomenal. We started with a papaya salad and a delicious appetizer platter that included chicken wrapped in banana leaves, both new to us and very tasty. We moved on to stir-fried red snapper with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce and a chicken penang curry. Both were great.

We retired early, tired from our relatively busy day and ready to pack and travel to Chiang Mai on Wednesday.

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A tree grows in Hong Kong

Written by Emmy on 4 June 2011

Once upon a time, when Chaz and I worked for Brown’s newspaper, he was a news editor and I was a features editor. He covered the hard-hitting issues and I covered, as he once put it, the fluff. In accordance with tradition, I’ll leave the factual details of our time in Hong Kong thus far to him, and I will instead paint a more flowery (literally) picture.

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We started our morning by heading into downtown HK (the Kelshes live in Repulse Bay, on the quieter south side of the island). What immediately struck me was how tall the apartment buildings were, and how many of them there seemed to be. Before I left, my mom commented that her first impression of the major Asian cities was that they were “teeming with humanity.” After seeing the soaring buildings, I could not agree more.

And then, out of nowhere, was a beautiful garden. Smack-dab in the middle of high-rises and surrounded by a freeway was a Buddhist garden filled with golden temples and magical-looking rocks. We explored the greenery — somehow silent, despite its surroundings — before heaving a vegetarian lunch in the gardens.

The beauty of a vegetarian meal is that I have zero fears of what might be on my plate. With meats, things can get a little creepy (i.e. the mysterious animal feet I saw in the markets today), but  I will take on any vegetable with gusto. And that we did.

Shredded mushroom with bean sproutVegetable-stuffed bean curdEggplant and diced mushroom "casserole"

Following lunch, we visited the Buddhist nunnery that sponsors the gardens and the restaurant within. We witnessed a lot of incense, fortune telling and a game that seemed like the Eastern equivalent of a magic eight ball: asking a question of a jar of incense sticks, and then shaking them until one fell out. It seemed to be a do-it-yourself art though; one woman shook her jar about five times, clearly unhappy with the answer she had been given. I didn’t know that the spirits have a “sorry, try again later” option.

Shaking out good fortune

Following our calm respite, we hit the open streets for sheer mayhem. For the full portrait of what we saw, it’s best to go the picture-says-a-thousand-words option and just check out the slideshow. There were foreign fruits and foreign meat products, and a whole lotta people.

More photos and stories coming soon (the 12-hour time difference is creating a whirlwind of jet lag), but as a sneak preview, you can expect a bus teetering along cliff-side roads, a whole table full of dumplings, a high-rise whose elevators shut down at midnight and another full day of adventures.