Virtual kitchen: daydreams of SALSA!

I’m ashamed to say I haven’t taken a single cooking class while we’ve been in South America. Shocking but true! 😦 Not to say that I haven’t been enjoying the food. Especially since we arrived in Bolivia/Peru.

Bolivia’s simple but hearty quinoa based soups were consistently delightful and satisfying. And I’m really getting into Peru’s collection of colorful, beguiling salsas!

While I haven’t been taking classes, I HAVE been asking questions at our favorite restaurants. I’ve never been able to get the most clear recipes however, so I’ve been supplementing my requests with some internet research, and all of it’s been making my mouth water for the day that I have my own kitchen again and get to experiment till I get the flavor combinations for some of the lovely condiments we’ve encountered during our South American journeys the way I want them.

So I’m putting together a recipe collection here so I’ll easily remember what I want to try, next chance I get. 🙂 Apologies for the long post, but it’ll help me to have everything in one place. 🙂 Maybe some day I’ll spruce it up with pictures of the recipes I get around to trying. 🙂

Chimichurri – Argentina

From Wikipedia: Chimichurri is a sauce used for grilled meat. The origin of the name of the sauce is unclear. There are various stories explaining the name… The Argentine gourmet Miguel Brascó claims that the word chimichurri originated when the British were captured after the British invasions of the Río de la Plata. The prisoners asked for condiment for their food mixing English, aboriginal and Spanish words. According to this story, che-mi-curry stands for “che mi salsa” (give me condiment) or “give me curry”. The word then corrupted to chimichurri.Another theory for the name of the sauce comes from the Basque settlers that arrived in Argentina as early as the 19th century. According to this theory, the name of the sauce comes from the Basque term tximitxurri, loosely translated as “a mixture of several things in no particular order.

There are green versions and red versions chimichurri – the red includes all the same ingredients as the green but adds tomato and or red bell pepper. The flavors are lovely and I’d be happy to put it on plenty of things – not just meat. 🙂

Here’s a recipe I found on simplyrecipes.com:

INGREDIENTS

1 cup firmly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley, trimmed of thick stems
– 3-4 garlic cloves
– 2 Tbsps fresh oregano leaves (can sub 2 teaspoons dried oregano)
– 1/2 cup olive oil
– 2 Tbsp red or white wine vinegar
– 1 teaspoon sea salt
– 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

METHOD
1 Finely chop the parsley, fresh oregano, and garlic (or process in a food processor several pulses). Place in a small bowl.
2 Stir in the olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Adjust seasonings.
Serve immediately or refrigerate. If chilled, return to room temperature before serving. Can keep for a day or two.
Yield: Serves 4.

Green Aji/Huacatay Salsa – Peru

Oh my gosh these elusive Peruvian sauces!

The green goodness that is served with bread as a starter in Peruvian joints in the US and has been showing up on randomly unpredictable culinary occasions during our time here in Peru seems to be the stuff of legend.

Online searches have proved absolutely futile in terms of pinning down an official and definitive recipe. There seem to be as many variations to the recipe as there are entries online; I can’t even settle on the most proper and official name. Suffice to say this topping is as delicious as it is addictive.

A key component appears to be haucatay, a Peruvian herb that seems near impossible to get fresh outside of South America (thus speaks the interwebs anyhow) – cooks on other continents make do with pre-packaged pastes when they’re lucky and mint/cilantro/a combination of the two when they’re not. More info here and here.

I found one afficianado’s advice on yelp:

each person has its own way of making it.

aji amarillo paste
huacatay paste
chopped green onions
lime juice
salt
bit of oil

puree on a blender

some others make it with

mayo, queso fresco, milk, cilantro…

i suggest you get creative.
enjoy

Seems to me like a good place to start (although I have also heard tell of a version involving peanuts!!! Seriously yum!). Here are some more intriguing recipes I’ve found online (have I mentioned I am so excited for when I have a kitchen again some day???):

http://southamericanfood.about.com/od/saladssidedishes/r/Peruvian-Huacatay-Salsa-Aji-De-Huacatay.htm
http://www.robertaskitchen.com/2008/01/06/salsa-verde-peruvian-green-sauce/
http://veganfeastkitchen.blogspot.com/2009/09/move-over-ketchup-and-salsa-peruvian.html

Salsa Picante – Peru

I had an awesome version of this just tonight at a restaurant here in Nazca (La Encantada in case you’re interested). Our friendly waitress told me it was made of the infamous aji amarillo (yellow chile pepper), onion, garlic, and milk blended together. Further research on the internet has yielded other recipes of course – see the collection below. The jury will have to wait till I get home and can try to rediscover the lovely, deep, sweet, fiery flavors of the pepper in my own homemade experiments before I can say what the best recipe might be.

http://www.fiery-foods.com/recipesearch/salsa-picante-de-peru-peruvian-hot-salsa
http://www.pepperfool.com/recipes/salsa/salsa_picante2.html

Tallarines Verdes: Green Noodles with Spinach Pesto – Peru

I stumbled across this recipe during my extensive internet searching. While this dish/sauce is not one that I was looking for, it makes me think of two meals from our two favorite restaurants in Cusco, so I want to make sure I give it a try when I can.

1) Green’s is a lovely organic restaurant that I got hooked on. Their garden salad comes with a great basil vinaigrette that I really loved. All the goodness of basil without heading towards the heaviness/garlic overload (not that that’s a bad thing! 😉 of pesto. Reading the ingredients for the sauce in this dish, I wonder if they used something like this recipe for their dressing.

2) Roma Mia was the delightful Italian restaurant – run by a proper, passionate Roman Italian – that absolutely charmed us. Our last meal there I had spaghetti pesto; it was served with beans a potatoes as in this recipe – which was a first for me.

The recipe is from about.com. Here it is:

YIELDServes 4-6.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 pound pasta (spaghetti, fettuccine, or linguine)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large bunch washed spinach (about 3 cups leaves. packed)
  • 1 cup basil leaves, washed
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup queso fresco cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste

PREPARATION:

  1. Sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until soft and fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. While onions are cooking, add spinach and basil leaves to a blender with the milk and process (working in batches if necessary) until smooth.
  3. Add cooked onions and garlic to the blender with the cheese and process, adding a little more milk if necessary, until you have a smooth mixture.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  5. Melt butter in the skillet that cooked the onions. Pour sauce from blender into the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes, until sauce is heated through and smooth. Keep sauce warm.
  6. Add pasta to the boiling water and cook according to directions. Drain well and toss pasta with the sauce. Serve warm.

The next recipes have nothing to do with South American cuisine. When we got to Arequipa, we were ready for some international fare. We loved the french-style creperie, subtly named Crepisimo, and I was in heaven finding some decent hummus and falafel at Fez (or Istanbul – there were two signs on the door so I’m not sure what the official name was. 😉 ). Sticking with the salsa theme, here are some sauces both restaurants got me excited about:

Crepisimo’s tasty french-style vinagrette

I normally don’t go for sauces with mayonnaise in them, but this one was delish! Our sweet waitress was kind enough to ask the kitchen for the ingredients, but as for measurments, I’ll have to experiment when I can. Some pointers – the finished product was thoroughly emulsified, light tan in color, and somewhat thick and creamy.

INGREDIENTS:

Mayonaise
Mustard
Balsamic vinegar
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Plain yogurt

PREPARATION:
Mix all ingredients well.

Yogurt/garlic goodness inspired by Fez

My salad at Fez came with a small pot of a seemingly simple yogurt sauce that exploded with insanely awesome garlic intensity about a second and a half after the first taste. Our waiter here was less communicative; he said the ingredients were yogurt and garlic but wouldn’t divulge any kitchen secrets beyond that.

Yogurt and garlic sauce in Middle Eastern cooking has less of a mystique to it than Peruvian green sauce although until that meal I’d managed to forget about it and how darn good it is given how rare it’s been to find that sort of food in South America.

Below is one simple recipe I found on about.com that could serve as a good base. The sauce I had at Fez though was completely smooth, so I think I might try nixing everything in a blender rather than having pieces of minced garlic floating about.

During my search I also found an intriguing recipe for vegan mayonaise that goes heavy on the garlic. I am NOT a fan of traditional mayo but I am a fiend for garlic, so this is definitely on my list of recipes to try.

http://www.tasteofbeirut.com/2011/09/lebanese-vegan-mayo/

Yogurt and garlic sauce

INGREDIENTS:

  • 16 oz. plain cold yogurt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • salt to taste

PREPARATION:

In a small mixing bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Mix well. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
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Food on my mind… (Or, how to make yogurt)

My last post made me realize that I haven’t done a recipe post in ages and ages. So I’m sneaking one in here. I actually meant to share this recipe while I was still at home in the States, since that’s when I was trying it out, but better late than never I guess. 😉

While we were staying with my dear friend Ritu and her family in Delhi, we got treated each and every day to hands down the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten.

Paneer, Dal, Spinach, Beans, Okra, Chapati and Yogurt - all home make and all seriously yum!

Bengali sweets - dangerously delicious!

Every meal was a total smorgasbord, with exciting new dishes involving different vegetables or combinations of spices or interesting sauces to try – not to mention all the different, amazing items picked up from Bengali Sweets for dessert.

Anyhow, while the spectrum of curries and legumes and veggies varied from day to day, there were a few staples that were always on the table. In addition to fragrant rice and piping hot, freshly made chapatis, there was homemade yogurt.

Reeshma, one of the maids, made a fresh batch of this yogurt every single day. I watched her and learned the steps and not only was it dead easy to make, it was totally delicious – light yet creamy, with just the right amount of tangy-ness. Roman and I tried yogurt all over India after that but we never found anything that could match Reeshma’s. I didn’t think to ask how long she’d been using the same culture to make yogurt for the house but I bet it’s been around for ages!

Having been dreaming of Reeshma’s yogurt ever since leaving India, I was excited to have access to a kitchen while we were at my parents’ place, and to try making yogurt myself. It IS incredibly easy. Although I don’t have the instinct for it like Reeshma did, who knew when the milk was ready to take of the heat just by looking at it. I tried doing that, attempting to remember how hot the milk in India felt all those months ago when I was shadowing Reeshma in the kitchen and all I ended up with was a pot full of room-temperature milk the next day.

But with the help of a cooking thermometer, I was able to brew up a perfectly firm batch of yogurt every time. Mine was never quite as good as Reeshma’s, but it got better as my culture matured and as I experimented with different types of milk and fermentation time, and in my opinion, it was definitely better than the store-bought stuff. So, without further ado, here’s how easy it is to make your own yogurt:

Ingredients/equipment:
 – 1 quart (about 1 liter) milk – skim, whole, whatever, it doesn’t matter
– 2 – 4 tablespoons starter – any plain, unsweetened yogurt that has live cultures. I used Stoneyfield Farm the first time and my own yogurt subsequently and both worked fine
– A pot to heat the milk in
– A bowl that is big enough to fit the pot so you can cool down the milk
– A clean, oven-safe bowl with lid for the yogurt to ferment in
– A cooking thermometer
– Tap water and ice
– An oven you can use for at least 7 hours.

Instructions: 

  1. Preheat your oven to between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (38 – 48 degrees Celsius). Once it’s reached the desired temperature, turn the oven off.
  2. Set out your starter to let it warm up while you’re preparing your milk.
  3. Prepare a bowl with a small amount of water (not too much or it will spill over the sides later when you put the pot in it; I know this from experience 😉 and a generous bunch of ice cubes; set to the side.
  4. Pour 1 quart of milk into your pot. Place the thermometer into the milk and heat over high heat.
  5. Watch the temperature; once it reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 Celsius), at which point the milk will start to froth, remove it from the heat and place it into the ice bath.
  6. Keep it in the ice bath until it cools to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius)
  7. Pour the milk into your bowl, cover and place in the warmed oven.
  8. Leave the yogurt in for as many hours as you can – I usually had it in for at least 7 hours. I’ve read that if you let it ferment longer that you’ll get thicker yogurt so you can play around and see what works for you.
  9. After enough time has passed, check in the oven and discover that magically, yogurt has appeared! 😀 I usually prepared the milk before I went to bed and let it sit in the oven overnight, so it was ready in time to go with Roman’s granola at breakfast. 🙂

I’ve been doing some more research online and looking at different recipes; I read one that said it’s also possible to get a thicker yogurt by keeping the milk at 185 degrees for longer (up to a half hour, one particular recipe suggested) – something for me to try when I have access to a proper kitchen again. 🙂

Travel is ruining me

Being on the road again after the three-month break in the States with my family has got me thinking.

If you don’t count the visit with my family as being home (which it is and it isn’t, since home for me for nearly six years prior to that had been Switzerland, and living with your parents temporarily isn’t the same as having your own home, even if you DO feel wonderfully at home with them and in your childhood house as I luckily do.), I’ve been homeless and traveling for a year and 8 ½ months; Roman’s been away from Switzerland three weeks shy of that. Kinda crazy.

It’s feeling totally normal and wonderful and great to be traveling again. Australia, I have to say, is a fantastic country to get back in the saddle with after the comforts of my parents’ house. No language barriers like in Asia and thus far the people are tremendously friendly and it’s been drop dead gorgeous. But I digress.

I’ve been catching some of the thoughts that float from time to time through my mind since we’ve been on the move again and I’m wondering if travel – this sort of travel anyhow – isn’t making me into a slightly worse person. You always hear that travel broadens your perspective of the world but I am wondering about the areas where things might be getting more narrow.

This first came to my attention in Sydney, where we met up with some friends of ours.

The couple we met worked at the same company I did in Switzerland. They quit around the same time Roman and I did to do an extended trip around the world, just like us. We traveled to different places, but some themes were the same. One was how it’s often difficult to talk about the trip with “the folks back home”. We loved being able to “talk shop” with fellow travelers, we oohed and ahhed as we compared itineraries and travel experiences in a way that we would never inflict on most people.

Another friend was an awesome guy we had met and hung out with in India over a few days in Varanasi and one super dinner in Delhi. We met for drinks and dinner and although we caught up about life in general, we also spent a lot of time collectively missing and loving India. Between the good memories, wonderful conversation and delicious wine, I felt like I was floating on clouds by the end of the evening, basking in the goodness of what was and what had been.

These get-togethers were fantastic, but they made me ponder about shared experiences and if my/our chances of sharing about some of the places we’ve been and things we have done have grown narrower as we’ve spread ourselves more widely across this big planet.

And then I realized that maybe even having thoughts like this make me into a wanker. Like, who has these kind of problems/musings??

Let me demonstrate. Here are some of the ways that this kind of travel is ruining me.

  • We’ve been in Australia for 3 ½ weeks. We just booked our flights out of the country, which means that we are currently half way through our time in Australia. Considering that we spent over three MONTHS in India, which is about half the size of Australia, 6 weeks in a country this size now seems like only a short visit. While most people in America only get 2 weeks off per year. I may be a jerk.
  • We’ve been to some absolutely amazing places. We are becoming increasingly hard to impress. (Although on the flip side there is a lot of stuff we love and are interested in so we aren’t at all jaded about any of the stuff we’ve done.) For example, while on the Ocean Road here in Australia we went for a tree top walk through a gorgeous rain forest in Otway. The woods were lovely, the trees stunning. The dinosaur exhibit was hilarious. We enjoyed it totally but there was not much “wow factor” compared to the views of the ocean we’d been treated to earlier and indeed we were a bit disappointed by the lack of fauna, since that morning we’d literally woken up under trees inhabited by super-cute-adorable-cuddly-looking koalas. Which was just as awesome as it sounds. I may be a snob.
  • If you’ve been following this blog at all you may have noticed that I. Love. Food. Well, let me be more specific. I love good food; I really love REALLY GOOD FOOD. We’ve had all sorts of REALLY GOOD FOOD all over the place. Which is awesome. And awful. Cause now I’ll find myself craving home cooked Indian food from my friends’ house in Delhi. Or that bangin’ ginger salad that the totally rad skinny little chef made on the cargo boat on the Irrawaddy River. Or mango sticky rice from my favorite place in Thailand. Or a Beerlao. Or that incredible fish dish from Cambodia. Or the best espresso I have ever had in Siem Reap of all places. Or fried up lotus root that we had at our Chinese school in Yangshuo. You get the point. And the point is, when the heck am I going to get to eat those delicious things again?? The point is also that when you get to eat such awesome stuff, your tolerance for sub-par food goes down. There is no “may” about this one, I AM a food snob.

So, is travel opening my eyes, heart and stomach to big, wonderful, exciting world? Yes! Is it turning me into a snob and possibly a jerk and/or wanker? Yes to the first and quite possibly to the second. Am I ok with this? If being ok with it means we get to keep traveling, I think I am. 😉

Dazhai – a feast for the senses! (part 2)

Sights

One of the most fun things we saw during our short stay in Dazhai was villagers rehearsing for an upcoming parade. There was an open space a stone’s throw from our hotel where a group gathered to practice their roles in a dragon dance. We joined the locals and watched and laughed with them, listening to the music and watching the small-town spectacle as, through enthusiastic instruction from the choreographer and many a fumbled step, the act slowly came together over the course of the day.


A view from above the village


A closer look


We weren’t the only ones enjoying the show. 🙂

Smells

Another thing I loved about Dazhai was how it smelled. The air was SO fresh up there in the mountains, autumnal crisp and such a nice change after traffic-clogged Guilin.

The days were sun-filled, gold-spun. The warm, slanting sunlight of autumn set the hills ablaze with light and filled the air with the smells of warm, dry end-of-the-year vegetation. Nights turned cold, and silver stars blazed above us in a dark, clear sky as the village became perfumed with the spicy scent of wood smoke.

Our hotel smelled great too. The walls of rough timber, which our hostess said were “Chinese pine”, perfumed the entire building with the most delicious, fresh pine scent. The whole atmosphere was rustic but clean, peaceful and totally uplifting; I felt like Heidi happy, comfortable and comforted in her grandfather’s mountain cottage.

The one smell I didn’t enjoy was one we came across time and again in Asia – the awful scent of burning garbage. I can understand that places as remote as Dazhai don’t have regular garbage collection, but still, I can’t help but cringe at the sight and smell of burning plastic.

It’s probably not the worst smell in the world but everything about its sickly sweet scent screams crime against nature to my olfactory system. I hate it. I’m happy to say though that overall the nature in and around Dazhai was very clean and clearly loved, and if there was smoke in the air, it was much more likely to be from burning brush as the farmers cleared their fields, rather than non-organic trash, like this:

Perhaps in part because of signs like these, that were all over the hiking paths 🙂 :

Tastes

Of course food is always one of my most favorite ways to experience a place! The eats in Dazhai were pretty simple, but I enjoyed them – for the most part. Sandy, the owner of our guesthouse, was also the cook, and she provided us with simple but lovely meals; bread and yogurt made fresh in-house, nice veggie stir-fries, delicious local tofu, things like that.

We ate out one night at another guesthouse down the road, where the menu was a bit more expansive. We stopped there earlier to enjoy a coffee and watch the parade practice. I was so proud of myself when I used my super limited Chinese to ask for milk for my coffee. The sweet woman who ran the place promptly responded to my request by squeezing milk from a small juice-box-sized package into my cup. Unorthodox technique but not quite so unorthodox as the flavor-combination of coffee and strawberry milk – the pink packaging should have tipped me off – which is not a drink I’d recommend to anyone! 😉

I wasn’t so put off though and I’m glad we had food there later. The “fried wild vegetable” was a tad on the healthy side but I’m happy I tried it; the “fried wild tuber onion” was off the hook in my opinion (I am a fiend for all things in the onion family though) and my in-China-favorite, pumpkin was also totally delicious!

Back to China – and to cooking

I’m going to ease back into where I left off in our travels with a post about food. For anyone who has (understandably!) lost track, that takes us back to Yangshuo, the town in Guangxi Province, China, where we took our survival Chinese course.

I had my sights set on taking at least one cooking class in China, but we somehow we were always moving around so much or too busy and sadly it never worked out.

But while we were in Yangshuo – the longest by far that we stayed in any one place in China – we ended up becoming regulars at a few spots in town and I did get the chance to snoop around the kitchen of our favorite restaurant on afternoon.

Trying new and exciting food is part and parcel of the travel experience and there’s seemingly always an excuse to indulge on something special, fancy, exotic, or rich. As wonderful as that is though, when you travel as long as we have, sometimes all you crave is something simple and down to earth.

We were really happy to find straightforward, down-to-earth food on the menu at Kelly’s Cafe. Lots of different veggies on offer made me a very happy girl, and the simple stir-fry techniques she cooked with let the fresh ingredients shine.

I enjoyed the cooking so much that I asked the restaurant’s owner if she’d show me how things were prepared. She was totally sweet and welcoming and let me squeeze into their miniscule little kitchen (seriously, this thing was about the size of my closet here in the States) to watch over the chef’s shoulder as they prepared some of my and Roman’s favorites.

It wasn’t a cooking class per se, but I did learn just how easy good stir fried vegetables can be to make. She explained that often times the difference between what people make at home and what you get at the restaurant comes down to the cooking temperature. What made her food so tasty was that it was cooked very quickly over the highest flame; home cooks tend to shy away from high heat. Also key is the type of soy sauce used.

Since I’ve arrived back in the States I’ve been gorging myself on my mom’s fantastic cooking and since it’s also been the holidays she’s been pulling out all the stops. I’ve eaten a ton more meat and other heavier foods than I usually do, and I’m definitely feeling ready for some lighter fare. I’ve been craving veggies and have started playing around with the cooking techniques Kelly demonstrated for me in Yangshuo. I still need to go shopping to find some proper soy sauce but so far I’ve been really happy with my creations.

The following aren’t full recipes but rather provide an overview of how Kelly’s put together our favorite dishes. Preparation of each dish doesn’t vary that much. If the prep work (chopping and cooking of noodles/rice) is done beforehand, which of course was the case at the restaurant, and the wok is hot enough, then each dish takes next to no time to cook.

As I said, I was just watching over the cook’s shoulder – measurements are approximate only; I would definitely recommend adjusting things to taste!

Pumpkin (nán guā)

Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Cook briefly, then add (2 cups?) of cubed pumpkin (squash would do as well).

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Add salt (1/2 – 1 tsp to taste) and a small dash of sugar.

Add water to the wok (1/4 – ½ cup – enough to keep the pumpkin from getting burnt) and cover; let cook for five minutes or until the pumpkin is soft.

Remove from heat and garnish with freshly cut chives.

Lotus root (ǒu)

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Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the slices of lotus root (somewhat similar in taste and texture to water chestnut).

Add a bit of chopped chili pepper (seeds removed) – vary the amount depending on how hot you like it.

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Add water to the wok (1/4 – ½) and cover; let cook for 3 – 5. The lotus roots should still remain crunchy.

Remove lid, mix in soy sauce to taste.

Remove from heat and garnish with scallion cut into 2-inch-long thin strips.

Friend noodles (chǎo miàn)

Noodles should be pre-cooked along with thinly cut strips of carrot.

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Have prepared finely chopped onions and greens – i.e., chard, bok choy, etc. and a handful of bean sprouts

Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1.5 tablespoons.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the onions, greens and sprouts.

Add the noodles (with carrot) and soy sauce.

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Cook for a few minutes, stirring as necessary.

Serve hot.

Fried rice

Rice should be pre-cooked.

Have prepared finely chopped red onions and greens – i.e., chard, bok choy, etc. and carrot

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Start with a hot wok.

Add vegetable oil – probably about 1 tablespoon.

Add sliced garlic, maybe one clove worth.

Add the onions, greens and carrots.

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Add the rice and soy sauce.

Cook for a few minutes, stirring as necessary.

Serve hot.

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Our feast!

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Friendly Kelly and the delicious pumpkin (nán guā) I love so much

Snap shots from my parents’ home

The holidays are now behind us and we are well and fully landed in the New Year over here in Connecticut. It’s still feeling somewhat surreal but it’s helping that things are quieting down a bit. Only now is it starting to really sink in that I am here with Roman in my hometown.

It’s too early for me to be able to deliver news about our onward plans for anyone who might be curious. 🙂 (I’m curious too in fact!) For now I’m mostly focusing on savoring the comforts of home:

–       It’s a great feeling not to have to pack up my bag every few days/every week. I have shelves in my old room where my clothes can stay put for now and that is awesome.

–       I love that my pillow smells like me.

–       Western plumbing is still blowing my mind and I have to remind myself at least once a day that I can put toilet paper into the toilet bowl over here.

–       My mom has been really generous with my use of her kitchen; we even have figured out how to cook two different things simultaneously without getting in each other’s way. I am loving being able to cook my own food again, and it’s total comfort to cook with my mom and better yet to be treated to her cooking.

–       I can’t get enough Martin hugs!! Hugs from my nephew are a rare but oh-so-deliciously-wonderful-and-precious thing.

–       It’s great having time to talk with my grandma Jackie. At 90 she’s more awesome than ever!

–       Although Stamford has changed a lot since I’ve lived here and there’s loads of new restaurants and shops, etc., it’s still a nice feeling to leave the house (instead of a hotel) and already know where I’m going without having to study a Lonely Planet map first.

–       Same goes for being able to take an aimless walk with Roman without having to worry about finding our way back to the hotel.

–       The best feeling is falling asleep all cozy warm under layers of my mother’s home-made blankets and quilts while the freezing winter air creeps in through the cracked-open window – I am loving the New England winter weather after all the tropical heat in the Philippines. All I need is some snow!! 🙂

Silk Road Tour day one: Part one

Day one of our tour was such a full, amazing day. Looking back it feels like so much longer than the time between a single sunrise and sunset. It saw us waking early in our gaudy hotel in Kashgar (more on that later!) to a cool, moist, overcast morning. We sorted out breakfast at the hotel and loaded our selves and our things into our taxi. The itinerary was as follows:

– Stop at a small town about an hour out of Kashgar to take in some first local sights and pick up breakfast.
– Begin the ascent into the mountains along the Karakorum Highway. Stops for photos along the way to be expected. 🙂
– Arrive at our destination, a home stay with a Kyrgyz family at their yurts, in time for a home-made lunch.
– The afternoon was for exploring the landscape around Karakul Lake.
– Dinner and settling in for the evening in the yurt.

A first taste of Uighur food

The first place we stopped was a small scrap of a town but it was exciting for Roman and I to our first look at China, our first look at Xinjiang.

This was a whole world away, not only from Southeast Asia which we’d become so familiar and comfortable with, but from anything else we’ve ever experienced. A whole different aesthetic, language, culture greeted us on the street. I found myself loving the gypsy like dress of the women, the dual language signs (featuring Arabic and Chinese writing).

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The street was lined with shops and food stands. We picked up some fruit for the next few days (pomegranate, which I was thrilled to see, is a local specialty), a small supply of pencils and notebooks we could gift our home stay kids, and local bread.

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There are two types of bread that we saw everywhere in Xinjiang. One is called something like “ach nan” (no idea what the correct spelling is) or just “nan” and is large and flat and sometimes cooked with extra ingredients (the ones I tried were subtly flavored with onion) and doubles as a plate.

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Another type of bread Yusef told us was called “gyr da” (again, don’t hold me to that spelling!). Similar to a real NYC delhi bagel, it is a round, dense bread, pinched but not open in the middle and coated with sesame seeds. We bought a huge, freshly baked bag-full for the road and their divine smell filled up the car – heaven! They are best when fresh and then they’re most different from a bagel in that they have a thick, delightfully crunchy, slightly salty crust. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them. 🙂

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Karakorum magic

After our stop for provisions, we got into the serious driving. The incline increased, signs of civilization decreased, and mountains began to rise on either side of the road. We were getting our first taste of Karakorum Highway.

My words and pictures can’t begin to capture the stunning, stark beauty of this place. Take a look at my panoramic photos for a feel, and I’ll try to capture a couple of impressions here, but really the best thing would be to go see it for your self! 😉

I loved the ruggedness and emptiness of it all. I loved how when we’d pull over to take pictures, we’d often be the only car in sight (although we did see a good number of cargo trucks). I loved how the few houses we did see blended in with the rocky landscape, since they were after all made directly from that very landscape – but for the brightly painted doors.

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Spot the house. 🙂

Most of all, I loved the mountains. I couldn’t get over the colors in them. Plum, purple, ochre, yellow, orange. Maroon, rust, cream, black, even some green, streaked through the rugged ranges.

I was thrilled at the first sighting of snow in a year (I won’t for a second complain about getting to travel in the tropics, but I do love me some snow!) as distant high peaks revealed themselves through the thick clouds.

Once we got high enough, the clouds suddenly disappeared, and we found ourselves in dazzling sunshine.

We stopped at an incredible “wet plateau” (this is what Lonely Planet calls it; I’m not sure what the deal is with this thing but it’s surrounded by ever shifting sand dunes and is massive and gorgeous), which is a bit of a tourist stop (we shared the view with a handful of Chinese tourists and this was the only place someone tried to get us to buy something in all of Xinjiang) and for all that sun was the coldest place we’ve experienced on our entire trip, with wind like a frozen knife! It was worth dealing with the environment though; the views were just gorgeous.

In case you missed them, more photos from the drive up are here.

Next up – yurt-life and Karakul Lake!

Hoi An overview and travel notes

We enjoyed the return to sultry tropical heat in Hoi An after our cool down in Dalat.

Hoi An is an entire village in central Vietnam that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its centuries-old, fascinating mix of architecture.

It was once a port town that hosted traders from neighboring Asian and Southeast Asian countries to more distant destinations such as Holland, Portugal, France, Britain and even America.

Chinese and Japanese traders spent significant time in the town – four months a year while they would wait for favorable winds to escort their ships back home. As such, Chinese and Japanese aesthetics can still be seen in some of the town’s architecture today.

We’d heard the place can get pretty crowded with tourists, but that the beautiful buildings were worth a visit.

As Lonely Planet puts it, “More so than with other towns, the tourist economy is both a boon and a bane to little Hoi An. Without it, the alluring houses of the Old Town would have crumbled into the river years ago. With it, the face of the Old Town has been preserved but its people and purpose have changed beyond recognition…. (I)t’s so often choked with visitors that it feels more like a movie set than an authentic town.”

Having set our expectations before we arrived, we could take and enjoy it for what it was – a beautifully picturesque but somewhat-Disneyland-feeling representation of a historic Vietnamese port town that just happened to be located at what used to be a Vietnamese port town. A previous post has some photos of the town.

Food and accommodation notes

Hoi An also provided the best food we experienced in all of Vietnam. We had local specialties at Miss Ly Cafeteria 22 (thanks Pirmin for the recommendation 🙂 ) that were outstanding! “White rose” – delicate, delicious rice paper dumplings with succulent shrimp inside – and “cao lau” – satisfyingly thick noodles mixed with greens, bean sprouts and bacon-like slices of crispy pork – were the two local dishes we tried there. Genuine cao lau noodles can apparently only be found in Hoi An as they are specially made with local water that apparently gives them a distinct taste. All I know is that the combination of flavors and especially textures in the dish at Cafeteria 22 were amazing!

We also indulged in what for us has become total comfort food on this trip with some pretty darn good Indian fare at Shree Ganesh. The German-owned but Italian-themed Casa Verde had espresso and home-made ice cream that made my day.

After our experience in Dalat, we booked ahead at the TripAdvisor recommended Hai Au hotel (at this point we’ve pretty much given up using Lonely Planet for hotels – TripAdvisor tends to have much wider selection, more up-to-date reviews, and, very helpfully, photo documentation from guests). A bit on the pricey side at 35 dollars a night, it was a step up from our hotel in Dalat, with decent rooms, super fast wifi, a very nice breakfast buffet included in the price, and super friendly staff.

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White roses – delicate and delicious

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Super tasty cao lau

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Fragrant fish cooked in a banana leaf – also good although not as amazing as the local specialties. 🙂

Current events: recharging and recalibration

Hello from Hong Kong!

So I nearly but didn’t quite finish blogging about Cambodia while we were in Hanoi, and now we’ve even left Vietnam. We’re here for two weeks as a bit of a break (a break from “being on vacation”? I know, I know… 😉 ).

By the end of Vietnam, I (possibly we – Vietnam was definitely not top of Roman’s list of destinations either) felt like I was full up. As though there wasn’t room enough in my brain for any new input. I’d walk past scenes, thinking, I can see why this is beautiful or interesting or would make a good picture, but there wasn’t any motivation to try to capture what I was witnessing.

I also couldn’t imagine eating another spring roll and I’d had enough of the dull-as-dirt mockery of bread that is the part of the standard hotel breakfast (I’m not into eggs and the pho at the last place we stayed smelled like a bathroom. :-P). I was fed up with smokey cafes and even when our hotels were decent, I started having fantasies about our old bed in our old apartment in Zürich – comfortable, clean, familiar. Smelling like home.

Don’t worry, I’m not ready to quit this trip. It’s just come time for a recharge.

Time to catch our breath after all the places we’ve been and things we’ve seen over the past months. Time to check in with our goals, our travel wish list, our budget. Time also for a bit of comfort and nurturing.

So here we are in Hong Kong.

WORLD-away-from-southeast-Asia Hong Kong, with its truly global mix of denizens, its international retail scene (hello H&M – probably the only international clothes shop within my price range here 😉 ), its amazing neighborhood markets, its fascinating, smelly chinese medicine shops, its belching, steamy-exhaust-producing double-decker buses and it’s clattering, antique-feeling double-decker trams, its red and white taxis, its ever-dripping, ever-humming air conditioners, its hilly streets, its lounging cats, its well-obeyed pedestrian traffic signals, its towering metallic-colored sky scrapers glittering in the golden afternoon sun.

It’s feeling great being in an honest-to-God city again after so long. I love that sensation of feeling so little – not in terms of significance but of being dwarfed by all that architecture, like an ant in a man-made garden.

It’s also a nice change not feeling like such a significant cog in a place’s economy. (In my head) I stand out here because I’m in my practical travel clothes and most westerners here seem to be in business get up or fashionistas. (This difference reminds me of how nice it is not to be in an office job any more and makes me happy!) It’s a very different feeling from being the obvious Western tourist and trying to keep my balance as I negotiate between doing my best to be culturally aware and spend my money responsibly and keeping zen after the 20th tuk tuk, cyclo or moto driver in half as many minutes asks us where we are going and then starts relentlessly chirping tourist spots at us that are all within walking distance…

We’re not doing anything touristy while we are here (not on purpose any way 🙂 ). We’ve rented a great little studio apartment (thank you airbnb!). It’s the cleanest, coziest place we’ve been since I don’t know how long and we’ve quickly settled in. Today, our second full day here, I caught myself referring to it as home. 🙂

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Comfy couch and a terrace!

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View from the couch – bed, storage, kitchen

Went grocery shopping the afternoon we arrived. The sensation of holding onions in my hands, to feel which ones I wanted to take home with me, was as comforting as a hug. The kitchen is basic but I’ve packed the fridge with produce and the pantries with staples and I am in pure heaven being able to cook again! Not to mention having full control of what I’m eating and being able to eat healthy. I also signed up at a gym that first day and have been twice already. I’ve found a yoga studio that I’ll be trying out tomorrow. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

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Tonight’s dinner – organic roasted veggies with feta over fusilli

It’s also time to get organized and ready for the next big destination – mainland China. This is a big one and the more I read about it the more excited I’m getting, so I really hope that these weeks will get me fully recharged so I have fresh energy for it.

God willing I’ll also catch up on the blog! I have a lot of cooking and yoga and China research I want to do, so the Vietnam posts may end up being a bit abbreviated… We’ll see how it all comes together. 🙂

On a random side note, my fascination with different currency continues. Hong Kong bills are big and bold, involving lions and strong colors and endorsed by the likes of HSBC (the bank’s logo is actually on the notes – that’s a first for me!). The 10 dollar note really stands out though. It looks like the color palette was lifted straight from Barbie and the Rocker’s wardrobe/stage set. (realize I am dating myself.) I totally love it, but I wonder if any men ever feel emasculated when they have to use it to pay for something?

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Saigon sidenote: Sweet sins

Before I keep blogging about Cambodia, I need to quickly share about a food experience we’ve had here in Saigon.

By now you probably know how much I love good food. What I may not have confessed yet is that I have a particularly strong weakness for ice cream. I just Love the stuff. Love with a capital “L”.

When I was reading about food places here in Saigon in the Lonely Planet, a place called Fanny’s Ice Cream Parlour caught my eye. LP wrote that it serves some interesting flavors, including durian – the only exotic fruit that I have been a wimp about trying.

I’m very curious and eager to give durian a go, but being shut up with the intense smell of it when a Cambodian family sharing the bus with us had it for a snack kind of put me off, plus the fact that when I’ve seen it for sale, it’s always been as a whole fruit, and durian get to be massive!

I found this video online if you are curious about the whole smell thing:

Anyhow, it seemed like durian ice cream could be the perfect introduction! I’ve never experienced smelly ice cream, and I could order just one scoop. Thus Fanny’s ended up on our to-do list yesterday.

We didn’t know what we were getting in to. We sat down at the mini-table. Everything is cute and girly – tiny carnations in a small vase, doll-sized wine glasses with single gulps of cool water… – except the menu, which was huge to the point of awe and overwhelm.

Let me put it this way. There is one item on the menu, a share-with-a-friend sampler. You get to pick your flavors for a taste-testing platter. Twenty of them.

Twenty flavors isn’t enough to come close to exhausting the ice cream they have on offer. The menu includes a bevy of creative and intriguing taste combinations piled together in beautiful and colorful ice cream works of art.

This is the one Roman ordered off the menu – I forget the name but it involves fruit salad including lotus pod seeds and lotus root, refreshing berry ice creams and sorbets and a lotus flower made of white chocolate and whipped cream. Just to give you an idea.

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I went rogue though and created my own plate. After agonizing deliberation, I and my taste buds ended up with four scoops of ice cream heaven.

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“Young rice” was delicate, smooth and light. It got a bit lost but did provide some balance to it’s more potent companions. “Chili chocolate” had just the right amount of spicy bite while still being a totally satisfying chocolate experience. “Peanut” was sweet, nutty, chewy bliss. “Ginger” was zingy and creamy at the same time. Perfection. All topped by thinly sliced almond and the definition of what caramel sauce really is meant to be. No artificial flavors here (or in any of the ice cream either for that matter) – just a deep, toasty, amazing flavor blending perfectly with the lighter notes of ice cream.

Can you tell I was in heaven?

And yes, I realize after all that I didn’t get around to trying the durian ice cream after all. Shucks, I guess we’ll just have to go back!! 😉