Sunday, August 2, 2015

Slowing down in Taipei

We've been on the road a while now but have just arrived in Taipei. This is nearly the end of our trip. We can now switch from being tourists to being family. Much of our time will be dedicated to seeing relatives and enjoying the cafes of Da'an. After our push across the Malay peninsula and the islands of Hong Kong we are happy to just drink tea and play with little cousins. A little rest before our next stop in Seattle and the ever approaching new semester of teaching.

Hong Kong can't go wrong

We were missing big cities and Hong Kong fulfilled our need for hustle, bustle, and outrageously good food. I had never been before, but had heard a lot about it passively from culture (Kung Fu movies etc.) and actively from other travelers. I had the idea that it was big and crowded and money driven and that I probably wouldn't like it. What no one ever told me is how beautiful the city is. It has dazzling architecture framed by lush mountains and expansive sea. I'm not sure why people neglect to mention just how visually striking this city is, but it is absolutely one of the best skylines in the world. Lilly and I loved Hong Kong in a way we never expected. Enough that we could imagine living there, and we did spend some afternoons daydreaming about it. Part of what attracted us to the city was all the great people we met or reconnected with. It was a very social visit full of art, food and conversation.

This is really the first city we have visited this trip with a sizable contemporary art scene. We certainly don't believe that every city needs one, but it is still nice to reconnect with artists and art spaces when we can. The pictures above show very different corners of the Hong Kong scene. First is of Gallery Perrotin (a blue chip gallery based in Paris) the second is the AAA (Asian Art Archive: a really lovely space dedicated to collecting printed material about Asian art), and finally a pop-up art event put on by Para-Site (They are a nonprofit art organization. Lilly is picking up a fantastic book they wrote about the cultural impact of the SARS virus on Hong Kong art).

Oh and did I mention the FOOD! Really some of the best, if not the best, of our whole trip. Here are some highlights.

 Pork blood congee with scallion donuts.
 Steamed mantis prawn.
 A mushroom dumpling made to look like a mushroom. Even more delicious than it is cute.
 There were also a lot of good coffee shops doing really amazing single origin small batch roasting. This was a great flat white in Central.
 Good webbing with abalone. This was amazing and had some of the most interesting textures of anything I've ever had.
HUGE fishballs and dumpling soup!

But what really made this trip was visiting old friends who now live in Hong Kong. This included our good friends Gyun and Andrew and my cousin-in-law Shawn.

We left wanting more. The time in Hong Kong flew by and we feel we could have spent many more weeks there. Let's hope we get the chance to!

Approximately One Night in Bangkok

This is a picture of me at the royal barge museum. A wonderful and strange floating museum of the Thai Kings barges used during official ceremonies. One of the many unexpected but delightful finds in Bangkok.
When I was backpacking in 2006 I met a man who was on his 8th consecutive circumnavigation of the globe. We met in a hostel in Serbia but I told him that I would eventually be heading to Bangkok on my travels. In his worldly way he said that was good and that Bangkok whatever I need it to be whenever I arrive. I never really knew what he meant by this but on this most recent trip it made more sense to me. When I arrived in 2006 I was an exhausted backpacker and Bangkok gave me a quiet place to rest. This most recent visit Lilly and I wanted a little more city grit and energy and we got it. Bangkok has given me two completely different visits and each tailored to my mood, as if it knew I was coming. But this should be no surprise because Bangkok has been welcoming visitors since the times of the Angkor kingdoms. Thailand was never colonized but always hosted visiting armies, merchants, and foreign powers. They have mastered the politics of hospitality and at some point, by accident or design, every traveler will come to Bangkok. I left with the uncanny feeling that we will inevitably be back even if we have no plans to return and it will be exactly the place we need to be whenever that happens.

Here are some photo highlights of our time walking, getting lost, and eating across this enigmatic capital.

It was mangosteen season and we ate our weight in this delicious fruits. They have a thick read rind and a tart white flesh. The queen of fruits!

At JJ Market, a massive weekend market on the north edge of the city, we found some of the best American vintage clothes we've ever seen. Some of the most amazing were Vietnam war-era bomber jackets with embroidery of skull headed geishas and snoopy. This is where all the detritus from GI's who came in the 70s for R and R has ended up.

The Thai government has created a space for farmers to sell directly to city folks. We went and ate ourselves silly. It was amazing and not on any of the street food or tourist food blogs we found. There was a huge variety of fresh and prepared foods. Some highlights included crab legs with lime sauce, and curried fish stew on rice.

 And ofcourse we made time for temples. Here are shots from Wat Pho and Wat Arum.

One night we went to a "ladyboy" show. Last year Lilly was asked by the New Yorker to write the text for a photo essay about this Bangkok transsexual cabaret ( She did a great job researching from Atlanta, but we felt we of all people needed to go see it for ourselves. To our surprise it was billed as "family friendly" and the audience was composed of ourselves and Chinese families with kids. The show itself was an hour of lip-sinked dance routines to pop songs. It was all camp and a lot of fun, and we of course got our pics taken with the performers.

We don't know when or why or how, but we do know we'll be back to Bangkok one of these days.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A few non-eating activities in Chiang Mai

We did some actual site seeing when we got into Chiang Mai. The old city is stuffed with temples and we spend the better part of our first day hoping to dozens of them.

My favorite experience was the temple that after I used their bathroom handed me a very well made Thai/English brochure outlining the virtues of their bathroom. It included statistics about water usage and awards for cleanliness.

 We also took a day to drive an hour into the country side to visit an artist project space called "the land." It is headed up by Rirkrit Taravanija and is a free and open space for anyone who wants to do experimental projects in architecture, agriculture, and art.

Here I am in one of the pavilions. Everyone is welcome and can stay for as long as they want. So long as they bring their own tent and are willing to help out the full time farmer who tends the grounds. We stayed for about an hour...
 We finished up that same afternoon at the cafe of some new friends Sinn and Ann. We all share mutual friends back in Atlanta and they were kind enough to put us together knowing we would be passing through. It was a really great afternoon of conversation about life in Chiang Mai.

We also squeezed in a visit to an enigmatic artist project called the 31st Century Museum. This collection of shipping containers arranged in the shape of a "31" houses a collection of curios including ceramic skulls and a friendly dog named Cherry.


We know nothing about Thailand

We have been in Chiang Mai for two days. We have had meals at street vendors, tin roof restaurants, and 7 Elevens. It has all been amazing, but all we can do is point. We know none of the food names. We can only guess at their ingredients. We did a bit or research before we arrived on various food blogs but are unable to match what we found there to what we find in the street. In short we are having to confront the fact that we know absolutely nothing about northern Thai cuisine. We are only being led by our eyes and stomachs. This had led to fantastic meals but the growing fear that we could never repeat this and that we have so much to learn. Here are a selection of images of highlights from the past few days described as best we can.

These sweets are filled with carmalized coconut and surrounded by a glue rice gluten. As good as any nonya cake we had in Malaysia but they come in much cuter packs of three.

Green mangos sliced and served with a sweet and sour shrimp sauce. The sauce is thick with dried shrimps and Thai chilis.

Pork rib soup. The broth was an intense citrisy broth, very likely lemon grass but stronger than I've ever tasted lemongrass before.

They called it Snake Head Fish on the menu. And it really looks like a snake head. It was grilled to perfection. I wish I knew what it really was so I could order it again.

A pork neck salad. Big hunks of pork neck and jowl mixed in a spicy vinagrette and served with more fresh herbs than you shake your fist at.

Unripe mangos mixed with shallot and dried fish. This we spiced up with a heavy dose of pickled chilies.

Quail egg wontons. They are really creamy. My hunch is that this dish is also available in Burma and that crab rangoon is a poor American imitation of this regional food.

Stewed pork served with pickled cabbage and chili sauce. This was perhaps of the simplest food we had in terms of flavors, but its hard to turn down a plate of fatty pork with vinegar. All good food cultures have figured this out.

This is still one of the more baffling things I ordered. In a mortar this woman mixed three kinds of stale bread, peanuts, peppers, dried fish, and raw cabbage. She then worked it all into a mushy ball. It was actually quite mild and pleasant. Sorta like a Thai panzanella.

This was deep fried leaves identified as "ivys." They were accompanied by a sauce of minced pork, dried fish, chilies and huge hunks of shallots.

Blood sausage sliced and deep fried. This was served with a kind of spicy ketchup.

We will have more to report soon but no promise that we will be any savvier about knowing what we are putting in our faces.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Malaysia in no particular order

So we went through all of Malaysia without stopping to post anything. This means it's all getting squished into one big post. Here's a few pics of Lilly and I in our natural habitats. Kuala Lumpur street market and Penang mountain temple respectively.

Our trip was very much guided by the foods we wanted to try. We were very proud that we ate almost all of our meals out of doors and on the street. We had some of the best seafood of our lives and were introduced to so many new foods...but so much happened and so much is still happening that I'm unable (or rather unwilling) to organize them properly. So here they are as they uploaded...

This is the kitchen at Baba Charlie's in Melaka. This sweet shop makes "square cakes" in the tradition of the Chinese immigrants who settled this region in the 18th century. This place was one of the food highlights of our trip. Everything they made was delicious. 

 Nuf said.

 Through out Asia we have found Turkish ice cream vendors. We found yet another in Kuala Lumpur. Lilly of course got durian flavor. 
 Nasi Kandar is style of food typical to Penang. You get a plate of rice and top it with what ever you want from the case. Then they add sauces from everything to make a soupy meaty mess which is addicting. 
 Yes, the name says it all. This is a curry of fish heads. Although the flavors could be strong we found this very mild but pleasant. 

Here is one of my Nasi Kandar meals. This plate has fried chicken, curried fish roe and liver all covered in a lentil sauce. What?!? YES !

The impact of Chinese cuisine on Malaysian cooking cannot be understated. One ubiquitous and delicious soup coming from earlier Chinese immigrants is Bak Kut Teh. It is a pork rib soup served in a clay pot. Real comfort food. 
 Satay is deceptively simple. But when it is good it is really good. This meal in Kuala Lumpur was REALLY good. On this plate are small stuffed crabs, lamb, red cooked pork that is then grilled among many other delicious things. 
 At the Hindu temples in the Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur we did a lot of monkey watching. 
At the same cave temple we tried "Fish Muruku." We were hoping for something really unusual and strongly fishy. Nope. They are kinda like Ritz crackers. 
 More satay. Yes the fish is perfectly grilled. 

 Decisions decisions...
 Went for the prawn. These critters can be the size of your forearm in Malaysia. 
 Comparing my forearm.

 We spent the last week of Ramadan in Malaysia. The country is majority Muslim and many people fast during the day. It was great to be out to break fast with everyone else. You can see the diners above anxiously checking their cell phones to see when sun down has officially happened. When it did happen we all enjoyed black pepper crab. Perhaps the best preparation of crab we have ever had.

 This shot taken at a market in Melaka shows the palm leave boxes that people weave for the end of Ramadan. Theses were everywhere. As ubiquitous as christmas lights.
 Lilly taking in a mosque in their provided coverings. 
 Did I mention that there is an large and culinarily influential Indian population. These are from an outstanding Tandori stand in Melaka.

 A very common lunch is "Chicken Rice" but don't let the simple name throw you. These chicken is slow cooked in sub-boiling chicken stock over night and then served with glutenous rice balls. They should call it "elaborate orb plate."

 One of the square cakes form Baba Charlie's. The blue comes from a local flower.

LASKA! This is a distinctly Malaysian bowl and can be found almost anywhere. It takes influences from China, Thailand, Indonesia, India and everywhere in between and puts it in one dish. It can be prepared in many ways. This particular version has a strong vinegary broth made of both prawn and chicken then flavored with tamarind and blood orange. 

A really amazing visit. We are now in Thailand and will have many more pics to share.