43 articles Articles posted in travel

Sushi in Tokyo (with a toddler)

Sushi is one of my favorite foods in the world, but I must confess that for most of my life I have prioritized value over quality (Costco salmon sashimi, anyone?). This is in large part because whenever I tried better sushi restaurants in the US, it rarely ever felt like the quality justified the price, so I just couldn’t afford to keep looking for good sushi where I lived (which were admittedly not very good sushi towns to begin with… Phoenix and DC). So our hopes in Tokyo were to experience (1) quality sushi the way it was intended it to be, and (2) the best value sushi we could find. I think we didn’t do too badly… even with a toddler in tow.

Tsukiji Market
Let me start where sushi begins… at Tsukiji Market. I felt lucky to have a chance to visit this historic place, because it is very likely to be gone soon. In fact, when we visited last September, there was a lot of talk that the (inner) market would be closing by the end of the year and relocating to somewhere farther out. Last I heard, the move has been rescheduled to 2016 (check out this piece for more info on the move, as well as the market’s history). Even though the new market will have much larger and better facilities, it’s definitely sad that such an iconic piece of the city will no longer be the way it has been for the past 80 years.

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Eating in Tokyo

Last September, we took a short trip to Tokyo. It was my first time in Japan, and though my husband has relatives there, he hadn’t been back since childhood. This city truly felt like Paris in Asia, and like the French, the Japanese also bring a lot of care and attention to everything they do. Ever since our trip, I have found myself quite smitten with the Japanese obsession with details and their compulsion to perfect absolutely everything, right down to how to keep your noodles firm when you are eating them with broth. These are the questions that keep this culture up at night. And we were very happy to benefit from it for a brief four days.

During our time in Tokyo, we stayed in a neighborhood called Shimokitazawa on the western edge of the city. The area’s calm, relaxed pace was just right for us with our two-year-old, but at the same time, the long history of arts and culture there has exploded into a hip, vibrant community kept alive by both young and old. Our kind AirBnB hostess, Wakana, gave us such a great introduction to the area that I ended up writing a travel piece on our time there. The story ran recently in the Washington Post travel section, and if you’re interested you can read more about the neighborhood’s personality, history, and offerings there. Tokyo is pretty expensive, so if you’re ever looking for a more affordable lodging option, Shimokita is definitely a great pick, especially if you also want to get away from the frenzy of the big city!

Much or our time in between meals in Tokyo was spent meandering in different neighborhoods and popping in and out of shops. We’re lucky to have plenty of Uniqlo and Muji shops in Beijing, so in Tokyo we instead frequented Tokyu Hands, Loft, and Daiso. Our hostess also kindly invited us over to her home and to attend the annual local temple festival with her family, which we thoroughly enjoyed. It really gave us such a personal glimpse into local life and culture. One morning, we even stumbled upon this children’s parade coinciding with the festival, and little E was very happy to participate in it!

As for food, given that our time in Tokyo was very brief, we decided to focus on just a few things we really wanted to eat…

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Eating in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am finally getting around to finishing up my Thailand posts (more than a year after our trip!). After ringing in the new year in Hong Kong with family last year, we spent 5 days each in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This was the last leg of our trip, and we didn’t have a whole lot planned. Many people go to Chiang Mai for trekking and elephant riding, but the thought of bringing a squirmy toddler along on a long ride in the back of a truck out to the wilderness did not quite appeal to us (not to mention getting him through the hiking and riding part :).

Instead, we situated ourselves in a small hotel near the city gate within the city walls. We visited a lot of markets. We took turns doing a solo activity (my husband got a foot massage, and I took a cooking class). We drank a lot of fresh fruit smoothies and ate a lot of noodles. We took naps. :)

Chiang Mai was a bit tougher to navigate because there isn’t any public transportation. (In the past few years I’ve come to realize that good public transportation, or having a car, makes a big difference when traveling, since being able to get around on your own just allows for much more flexibility and independence, especially when you don’t know the language.) A lot of the getting around in Chiang Mai is done in the back of these covered trucks, and you can negotiate a price with the driver. The old city within the walls is very walkable, but once you get outside of the city walls, distances are much farther between places.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy many leisurely strolls through the old quarters, at various markets around the city, and even to a few farther out places. We also enjoyed getting to try some northern Thai flavors and new dishes. It was in Chiang Mai that I discovered my new favorite Thai food, which I was lucky enough to taste in our very first meal in the city, so that meant I had the next five days to eat more of it. :)

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Beijing Breakfasts

One of my favorite things to do when friends visit us in Beijing is to take them on a morning walk to look for breakfast. It’s a great way to start the day in Beijing — there’s a buzz in the air as everyone is hurrying off to work and the city comes alive.

Breakfasts carts abound everywhere, but they are particularly plentiful near subway stops. And if you happen to stumble upon a busy food street, with stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in addition to the carts, then you’ll have your pick of some of the finest Beijing street food.

Like youtiao 油條! Ah, nothing like a mouthful of crispy fried dough in the morning. :) This is a type of Chinese cruller — neither sweet nor savory; just plain satisfying on its own or dunked in something liquidy, be that soy milk, congee (rice porridge), or whatever sauce, soup, or beverage of your liking.

Tea eggs (cha ye dan 茶葉蛋) are also excellent. These hard-boiled eggs have been cracked and marinated in a brew of soy sauce, spices, and tea.

Northern Chinese cuisine features a lot of filling, doughy foods, and breakfast is no exception. There’s mantou 馒头, which is a type of fluffy steamed bread. They can be simply folded or sometimes intricately rolled into many coils or threads, like the so-called yinsijuan 銀絲卷, or silver-thread rolls, which I like to eat strand by strand. :)

Then there are baozi 子 or buns filled with any number of things, both sweet (like red bean paste) or savory (like pork, cabbage, chives, mushrooms, etc.).

And of course there are jiaozi  or dumplings of all sorts, whether steamed, boiled, or fried.

Indeed, the variations on dough are endless! Like these long, pork-stuffed — buns? dumplings? pancakes? — that are then fried.

If you recognize the dumpling roller above, it is in fact the very same dumpling roller Becca purchased from this vendor as a souvenir right before she left Beijing. :)

Also existing in various permutations is the breakfast sandwich or wrap, like jidan guanbing 鸡蛋灌饼, which is a sort of egg sandwich. It starts with dough with a smidgen of lard wrapped in the center. Then the dough is rolled flat into a pancake and fried.

The lard creates a pocket in the center of the pancake that you break open with chopsticks and fill with egg.

Once cooked, the pancake is spread with a savory brown sauce and chili sauce, then folded in half like a taco, and stuffed with a piece of lettuce and your choice of filling — shredded potato, hot dog, or chicken or pork.

For lighter fare, if you’re in the mood for tofu in the morning, I highly recommend tofu brains, doufu nao 豆腐脑. Or perhaps you might know it as doufu hua 豆腐花, tofu flower or tofu pudding. This dish involves no brains at all but is made up of soft silken tofu that in southern Chinese cultures is served sweet but in many northern Chinese cities is served savory, with soy sauce and various other sauces and garnishes. I have to admit, the taste and quality can really vary from vendor to vendor, and I have yet to find doufu nao that I like here. But I do love silken tofu, so sometimes I just request that all sauces and garnishes be left off so I that can bring it home and add my own.

In a breakfast food category of its own is the perennial fan favorite, the jianbing 煎饼 – affectionately called the “Beijing crepe.” It’s made virtually in the same way as a French crepe, except the batter and filling can vary. The batter below is made of buckwheat flour.

The standard jianbing fillings are egg, a brown hoisin-like sauce, garnishes such as scallions and chili, and a sheet of fried crispy thing that adds a light crunch. For a little extra, you can request another egg or various meat options like hot dog, chicken, or pork.

We used to always get our jianbing from our very own Jolly Crepe Man, who sadly has disappeared from our street for reasons unbeknownst to us. :( As you can see in the photos, he was always smiling. We still believe him to be the jolliest man in all of Beijing.

What might be my favorite thing of all to get on our breakfast street is liangpi 凉皮, a type of Shaanxi noodle made of rice flour and served cold (the name literally means “cold skin”). These noodles are also available at other times of day, not just at breakfast. Sauces and garnishes vary from vendor to vendor, but typically what’s involved is sesame paste, soy sauce, vinegar, and lots of julienned cucumber. The vendor near us also adds garlic, sesame seeds, spongey fried tofu, and cilantro. I absolutely love this dish, especially when the rice noodles are paper thin. It tastes like a Chinese version of Vietnamese banh uot to me!

There are several other popular breakfast items not pictured here. Among them is porridge made from various grains. Rice porridge (zhou ) is very common in many parts of Asia, but in northern China, millet porridge (小米粥 xiaomi zhou) is also common. And soy milk (douzhi 豆汁) and yogurt (酸奶 suan nai) are drunk at breakfast and throughout the day (yogurt is much more liquid here than we’re used to in the US, as you can imagine if you’re familiar with the sour yogurt drink Yakult).

Even though modern buildings and fancy restaurants are constantly popping up all around Beijing, I love how you can get still a feel (and taste :) of old-world Beijing just by going out for a walk in the morning. I hope that never changes.