34 posts Posts by julie

Art Print Giveaway: What’s in Your Pho?

Pho9 copy2

If you haven’t visited our site in a while, you’ll find that things look a little different around here! We’ve updated our banner, added some new travel pages for Beijing and Grenada, and included a recipe index too. You can subscribe to the blog by email or RSS feed, or connect to us through our new Facebook page. When you “like” the Facebook page, you can also sign up to get notifications so you don’t miss any new posts — including a family pho recipe we’ll be sharing later this week!

Pho3 copy2

Pho2 copy2

As you might know, Becca is a designer by trade and owner of Lavender’s Blue Designs. Not only is she the one who created our new blog design, she’s also the talent behind the cute foodie Valentines back in February and, of course, Elijah’s first birthday party. And now, to go along with our site’s new look, she’s created a set of art prints featuring a beloved food of ours — pho!

To celebrate the site’s new look, we will be selecting TWO winners to each receive an 8″x10″ art print of his/her choice! You can enter the giveaway any time between now and next Tuesday. The giveaway will close in one week, at 11:59 p.m. EST, on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.

The prize is open to anyone worldwide. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below telling us what’s in your pho.

See additional details below:


In addition to the giveaway, these prints are also available for purchase in the Lavender’s Blue Etsy shop. From now until May 15th, Becca is offering free shipping within the United States.*

Each print is available in two sizes in the shop:
8″x10 – $22
11″x14″ – $32

These are high-quality giclee art prints, printed on super-smooth, coated 100% post-consumer recycled paper featuring a few natural surface imperfections. Process chlorine free (PCF). 170 gsm/ 62 lb.

*Please note that the giveaway is open to readers worldwide. For the time being, however, art prints purchased through the Etsy shop can only be shipped to a U.S. address. As you might know, both my sister and I currently live abroad, so being able to offer international shipping is important to us. Right now, Lavender’s Blue works with a wonderful printer to fulfill US orders, and we are currently looking for a similarly reliable printer who can ship worldwide. We hope to have this option available soon for all our international readers. For the giveaway only, we will personally ship the art prints to two winners anywhere in the world.


Pho5 copy2

Pho7 copy

Be sure to check back later this week when we’ll be sharing our family pho recipe! We’ll also tell you what’s in our pho. :)

*Edit: The giveaway is now closed. Thanks for your comments and entries! Winners will be announced soon.

Australia Dairy Company (澳洲牛奶公司), Hong Kong, and a Lesson in Journalism

I will always remember how 2013 started — with one of the best breakfasts ever at the famous Australia Dairy Company, thanks to the recommendation of a foodie friend. As forewarned, the line was crazy, but was it ever worth it.

This place is a classic Hong Kong cha chaan teng — literally, “teahouse,” but its cultural equivalent is closer to an American diner. Like diners, these places have quick service, are open long hours (sometimes 24-hours), serve comfort foods, and just have that homey, down-to-earth atmosphere about them. They usually serve a mix of classic Cantonese foods as well as a lot of Hong Kong-style Western dishes.

Thanks to the aforementioned foodie friend, we knew just what to order here.

Macaroni soup with ham (fo tuy tong fun 火腿通粉): My dad used to make various versions of macaroni soup, so it’s something I grew up with, but I can see how it can be strange if you’ve never had macaroni this way. Think of it as Hong Kong’s version of chicken noodle soup, especially the Campbell’s kind with the strips of ham, which I think this closely resembles. (And, actually, it’s only now looking at the photos that I notice the cans of Campbell’s soup in the kitchen.) It is classic Hong Kong diner food, but I think it is skippable if you are not particularly hungry, because some of the other stuff is just not to be missed.

Scrambled eggs (chow dan 炒蛋): This may be more familiar territory, but you’d be hard-pressed to find scrambled eggs as fluffy and perfectly cooked as these anywhere else. You can get them on toast or as a sandwich. I think the open-faced version highlights the perfect eggs more.

Steamed milk (dun lai): Whatever you do, make sure steamed milk is in your order. (Steamed egg is also available, but we didn’t try it because we were more excited about the milk.) The name can be deceiving, because this is not a drink. It is more like a soft, warm yogurt or custard. The taste resembles fresh ricotta if you’ve ever made it at home — clean, fresh, subtle, with a bit of added sweetness. In Cantonese, it’s called dun lai, “steamed milk,” but in Beijing it is called nai lao or “cheese.”

Just as important as the food at the Australia Dairy Company is the atmosphere. After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, we were pointed toward a tiny table that we shared with another couple. The waiter scribbled down our order in a rush, and then, realizing we were getting everything, asked us why we didn’t just order the breakfast set. (Because we can’t read the Chinese menu… but there was no time to even be embarrassed.) When our food arrived shortly after, there was the awkward shuffle to fit everything onto our half of the tiny table, all the while trying not to knock over hot liquids or wake up our napping baby. We ate while waiters paced back and forth with orders. And when we were done, we were pointed toward the front desk to pay, and our spot was immediately cleaned. By the time we were out the door, another couple had taken our seats. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.

On our way out the door, I lingered a couple extra seconds to snap a few quick photos, panicking the whole time that someone would yell at me to get out of the way. When I stepped out the door, my husband asked me if I got some good shots, and I said, “No, I just took some quick ones ’cause I didn’t want them to yell at me.” He said, “What? You don’t have to leave until someone kicks you out! You should go back.” This coming from someone who snuck into the Hay Adams Hotel for “brunch” when Obama first arrived in DC for the inauguration in 2009. (He did get kicked out… but not before he’d done a few interviews.) I was still reluctant, but at his encouragement, I mustered up some pluck and marched back in there to document a bit of the action…

It was, in many ways, a fitting start to a new year.

Australia Dairy Company 澳洲牛奶公司 [map]
G/F, 47-49 Parkes Street, Jordan
Phone: 2730-1356
Metro: Jordan
There’s a breakfast set available from 7:30 a.m. to noon for 26HKD. It includes buttered toast, 2 eggs cooked to order, macaroni soup with ham, and coffee or tea. Cold drinks are an additional 2HKD.

Graham Street Wet Market and Dai Pai Dong in Central, Hong Kong

Once such an integral part of Hong Kong life, both wet markets and dai pai dong (street food stalls) are now becoming cultural relics and tourist attractions. Fortunately, we were able to make a quick stop to see samples of both during our trip last month.

Traditionally, wet markets are so called because they are hosed down every day, washing out all the dirt, scraps, blood, and guts from each day’s transactions. They’re often open-air, but some also have a covered section, and others are entirely housed inside a building. Although they’re not as common as they used to be, thankfully, Hong Kong still has a number of wet markets in various neighborhoods, and when my parents lived there briefly a couple of years ago, they still preferred getting groceries there.

One of the oldest wet markets in Hong Kong is in Central, on Graham Street between Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road. My husband’s grandma has actually been frequenting this market for decades! He still has memories of trudging uphill with her and complaining about the heavy bags he had to carry while she was holding both groceries and his small cousins and not even breaking a sweat. To this day, she still buys her groceries here.

We caught the market in the evening, just as many of the stalls were starting to close up, so we just walked through quickly. This market seems to consist more of permanent shops whose wares spill out onto streetside tables and crates during the day. Here, you can find fresh produce, seafood, meat, dried goods, flowers, and more. Look out for the signature red lamps (see photo above) that have become an icon of Hong Kong wet markets. These lamps are said to make the fish look fresher.

I know wet markets can make people uneasy, and I confess that I’ve been to a few that I was surprised to find myself quite uncomfortable at (most notably, the Bac Ha market in Sapa, Vietnam), but for the most part, I love wet markets. They are full of color and life, and there’s no better way to experience local culture than to head to a market in the morning. If you live in a place that has a nearby wet market, just think how convenient — and how much more fun and personal — it would be to walk down the block and get fresh groceries every day from individuals you’ve gotten to know and trust.

We were really passing by the Graham Street Wet Market that night on our way to the dai pai dong in Central. When I was growing up in Toronto, dai pai dong to me meant that food court in the basement of the Dragon City complex in Chinatown where we ordered up stir-fried dishes like fried radish cake and then congregated at a table to scarf it down with some soybean juice. It’s actually quite like the hawker centers in Singapore, where the street-food culture has been sanitized and homogenized.

Originally, dai pai dongs referred specifically to open-air food stalls in Hong Kong with registered licenses prominently displayed, hence dai pai, which means “big sign” (dong means “stall”). There are really only 28 of these left in Hong Kong, and since these licenses are no longer issued, naturally dai pai dong are a dying phenomenon. If you see a stall painted green with a sign prominently displayed, you’ll know that it’s an original. Otherwise, the term dai pai dong has come to refer to any sort of open-air food court, with street stalls and street-side seating.

When I was in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, most of my meals came from street stalls because they’re everywhere there. But despite being to Hong Kong many times, I actually still had not been to a dai pai dong there. So I was eager to finally experience one this past trip. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected, because they’ve become so rare and are not as popular anymore. One of my husband’s local relatives even asked us why wanted to go to one because they are so dirty! But we were not to be deterred. After stumbling around in Central for a little bit, we were directed to an alley where a couple of food carts were set up. In the left photo above, you can see the famous Soho escalators in the background. I don’t know if this was an official licensed dai pai dong, but it certainly had many of the characteristics of one.

Hong Kong cuisine owes a lot of its characteristics to dai pai dong culture. Many Cantonese dishes are cooked in a wok, which is the main cooking vessel in a dai pai dong. The Cantonese often speak of a dish having wok hei, or the “breath of a wok” — that ever-elusive quality to a dish cooked at high heat in a wok over an open flame. The “breath” is the same word as qi in Mandarin — energy, life force. And indeed, imparting wok hei into a dish requires the skill, deftness, and expertise of a master. A dish with wok hei has a slightly charred taste but is never burnt. The high heat immediately vaporizes moisture, so the food has just the barest crisp edge to it. And it’s not supposed to be greasy. I imagine a dish with wok hei tastes like it’s been cooked by a dragon. The quality is that mythical.

At the dai pai dong in Central, my husband, his brother, and I ordered beef chow fun and salt-and-pepper wings. We were actually on our way to meet up with someone for dinner elsewhere, so this was really just a starter.

The beef chow fun was the best I’d had in a long time. This is the dish that Hong Kong chefs are tested on, as it is very difficult to stir-fry the rice noodles so that they remain intact, soft but not mushy, all the while imparting that seared wok hei flavor to the dish. And this one was expertly rendered. Note in the photo that even the ends of the bean sprouts have been picked off — a real attention to detail! 

The salt-and-pepper wings were deliciously crisp and salty-smoky as well. But the beef chow fun was the real star of our meal.

While this dai pai dong in Central is quite small (it takes up maybe half an alley) and uses an obviously touristy bilingual menu with very non-street-food prices, it certainly did not disappoint. The menu offers a lot of variety, including many of the most famous Cantonese dishes, like Singaporean rice noodles, salt and pepper pork ribs, fried squab, and sweet and sour pork.

If you ever find yourself strolling through the streets of Central (which I also recommend), make sure to pass through the Graham Street Wet Market. You might also order up some beef chow fun at the dai pai dong nearby and experience some local culture that may not be around for much longer.

Graham Street Wet Market
Graham Street, between Queen’s Road and Hollywood Road [map]
Central district, Hong Kong

Central Dai Pai Dong
There may be several in Central district, but the one we went to was in an alley off the Graham Street Wet Market. I don’t have the exact location, but I’ve included an approximate location marker on this map. You can also try asking around at the market. Many people in Hong Kong speak English.

The Story of Budaejjigae, Korea’s “Army Base Stew” (부대찌개)

While preparing for our trip to Seoul in November, I came across an interesting Korean dish called budaejjigae (부대찌개), which translates to “army base stew.” Being a fan of Shin Ramyun, the Korean instant noodles with an almost cult following of Asians around the world, the idea of a spicy stew composed of Korean ramen and a mishmash of crazy toppings, including Spam, instantly appealed to me. I know — that either sounds very right or very wrong to you. Let me get to that in a moment.

Regardless of whether this is a dish you think you might ever want to try, suffice it to say that budaejjigae has a fascinating history. And during my time in Seoul, I was fortunate to meet the lady whom many believe to be the creator of this stew. She’s still making it to this day! You can find out more about her and the origins of budaejjigae in my story in the Washington Post’s travel section today. 

Now, as for whether this dish is worth trying… If you’re a fellow Shin Ramyun devotee, let me just say — one taste of budaejjigae, and you will understand the true meaning of Shin Ramyun. But if you’re balking at the whole idea of paying for a bowl of instant noodles at a restaurant, or asking why you would want to go to Korea to eat Spam — let’s just start over, shall we? This is not a bowl of glorified instant noodles. This is a Korean feast. So: think bubbling Korean stews cooked at the table with fresh ingredients — onions, scallions, gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), kimchi, tofu, leafy greens. Then, yes, add Spam and ramen and whatever else you like — it will all simmer in the rich, spicy broth, soaking in the flavors of the stew. To eat, serve with kimchi and rice. If you truly are not an adventurous eater, I suppose you could substitute in “real” meat (in Korea, Spam is made with real meat!) and maybe some Korean glass noodles. But if you don’t eat kimchi, I can’t help you there.

This is also an easy dish to recreate at home. It’s not quite the same as digging into a big black cauldron of budaejjigae in the dish’s native Uijeongbu, where each chef each has his/her own take on the stew. But it’s a nice, hearty meal that comes together quickly, especially for a cold winter weeknight.

Budaejjigae (Korean Army Base Stew): A Non-Recipe

This can be made quickly in a pot on the stove or cooked in a deep electric skillet or wok at the table, where it continues to simmer while you eat. You can have it as a one-pot meal on its own, or serve it with kimchi and rice.

Sticking to the rustic origins of this dish, here I offer you my non-recipe. Use this as a general guideline. Adjust amounts to your liking. The ingredients to this dish are very flexible, but generally it’s the gochujang, kimchi, Spam, and Korean ramen that make it, so try not to skip those. (Korean ramen has thicker noodles than other instant noodle brands. Don’t use the seasoning packets, though, as the flavor of the stew will come from the other ingredients.) Even if you just tossed everything into a pot and boiled it, it would turn out fine. The only thing I’ll mention is that if it comes out a tad too sour for you, due to the kimchi, try adding a dash of sugar. And you’ll want to eat the noodles as soon as they’re done, to avoid them getting soggy.

BASE: gochujang, kimchi
AROMATICS: onion, garlic, scallions
MEAT: Spam (additionally, sliced hot dogs and ground beef are also common)
BROTH: enough chicken or beef broth (homemade, canned, or even water would work) to just cover all the ingredients; add water if it boils down too quickly
VEGETABLES: leafy greens like garland chrysanthemum are popular (I’ve used pea sprouts in the photo), as are various mushrooms like enoki or shiitake
NOODLES: Korean ramen, such as Shin Ramyun noodles (skip the seasoning packets, though); some people like to also add sweet potato noodles
OPTIONAL TOPPINGS: baked beans, tteok (rice cake), bacon, tofu, and American cheese