I’m still harping on Japan. I know. I’m slow. There’s much to share from my trip in ‘ahem’ February. I can’t help but tell you more. Today we shall take a trip back to Kyoto. Everyone I know claims that Kyoto is simply beautiful – and after my visit, I too am a Kyoto fan. Unlike busy, metropolitan Tokyo, the city of Kyoto is brimming with ancient shrines, old-style architecture, cobble-stone streets, traditional tea houses and kimono-clad ladies. You read that right – where trendy fashionistas rock the sidewalks of Tokyo, beautiful women dressed in gorgeous kimonos are a common sight in Kyoto.
While we were in Europe, all we saw were churches. After a while, you tend to visit the most famous one and then give the rest a miss. Here in Kyoto, the shrines take over. However we had to visit the most famous shrine – Fushimi Inari – which is also the ‘head shrine’ of Inari, the papa shrine, the one that is featured in all Kyoto travel photos. The one with the orange-red torii (sub-gates) that line the pathways to the main shrine. This place is huge, and it’s definitely a sight to behold.
The other touristy spot we visited was the Arashimaya bamboo groves. The district itself is rather lovely to explore and many people like to hire bicycles and venture through the area. It is also famous for the monkey park but we had already seen snow monkeys in Nagano, we gave that a miss as well.
Beautiful Kyoto – imagine it in spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom! It would be amazing. We were there in winter but were lucky to spot a few cherry blossom trees that were early bloomers. You want a slice of Japanese culture? Visit Kyoto – oh my, I sound like a travel agency.
Aside from lucky cherry blossom spotting, we had the opportunity to join in the festivities of Godairikison ninno’e. This is the largest event in Daigoji held on February 23rd each year. This religious festival is attended by over 100,000 visitors a year. Monks pray for peace, health and happiness for Japan and paper charms are burnt and distributed. What caught our attention and brought us to the festival was actually the famous ‘mochi-lifting’ ceremony. Men and women take part in this ceremony by lifting giant mochi (rice cakes) – 150kg for men and 90kg for women. Apparently the longer one lifts and maintains hold on the giant mochi, gets dedicated with power (strength and health perhaps?) However the appearance of a superhero made me think that maybe the participants are really asking for super powers? It was very interesting and entertaining. The whole area of Daigoji Temple was filled with throngs of visitors, food stalls (there seem to be food stalls at every festival – I love it), colourful flags and giant mochis. Great fun.
Next up: A home-style cooking class in Kyoto
Japan is awesome. This was my very first trip to the land of the rising sun, the land of super considerate and polite beings, the land of contrasts and the land of mouthwatering amazingness. I mean, Japan is simply wow. Let me start by telling you how impressed I was with Japanese hospitality, customer service and general behaviour. People were so polite and considerate, I heard all of two car honks the entire time I was there. There were continuous thank you’s and welcome’s, there were lots of bowing and smiles. What a pleasant society.
The next thing you’d notice would be the contrasts – traditional temples sit amidst modern skyscrapers, kimono-clad ladies walk the streets next to sleek fashionistas, age-old businesses run alongside the most up-to-date technologically advanced machines.
Then comes the food. Everyone speaks of how expensive Japan is. But let me tell you – for about 600 – 800 yen which is roughly about $6 – 8 Aussie dollars, you can get a delicious meal. Steaming bowls of ramen, fresh sushi and sashimi boxes, teriyaki chicken bentos. Yum. There are obviously more expensive meals such as an omakase which is like a degustation meal. Those can range from 3500 – 250000 yen. In general, a decent meal complete with sake (Japanese rice wine) costs about $15 to $22. Not shabby, definitely not pricey but a whole lot of delicious.
There’s just so much to share with you, so let me just start off with a glimpse of the famous fish market in Tokyo – Tsukiji Market. This fish market is known to be one of the largest wholesale fish markets in the world. There are two parts to the market – the inner section that houses the famous tuna auction (we didn’t make it to that unfortunately), and the outer section chock full of fresh seafood, kitchenware and cooked food. The sights, smells and sounds were extraordinary.
Of course there’s food involved. We had the most succulent grilled oyster, sweet tamago (egg) roll, smoky yakitori and no one goes to Tsukiji market and not have sushi made from the freshest ingredients from next door right? My favourite was the uni gunkanmaki – a nigiri sushi (hand formed sushi) with a strip of nori (seaweed) around it and topped with loose ingredients such as uni (sea urchin). The creamy sea urchin was subtle, slightly savoury and you could taste the sea…wow and wow.
I did mention that the people were friendly and polite right? Look at our adorable sushi chef who smiled for the camera while preparing our lunch. So sweet.
Coming up next, a visit to Asakusa.
Christmas in Australia means summer BBQs by the beach, seafood dinners, cold beers, flip flops, floppy hats and the lingering smell of sun screen. We haven’t had a summer Christmas for a few years now and this is our first since returning to Oz. It feels strange. It feels kinda wrong – where’s the snow, warming mulled wine by the log fire, the hearty roast dinners and the lingering smell of wet wool?
The hubs and I did have a fabulous Christmas down south on the beautiful island of Tasmania. There may not be romantic walks in the snow this time while we waited for the Christmas hour to chime in – but the views of wine glass bay, the endless blue-est blue skies, baby wallabies, soft sand in between our toes, constant flow of delicious Tassie wine (and the freshest seafood) sure made up for it.
And beside shipping a carton of that delicious Tassie wine back to Victoria, we also brought back 5 kilos of this…
…the sweetest, plumpest, juiciest Tasmanian cherries. Oh my.
No prizes for guessing what the key ingredient is for my upcoming recipe posts! Stay tuned.
It’s been more than two months since my Vietnam trip, and I still can’t get over how good the food is (and how cheap!). Yes, we have plenty of Vietnamese restaurants here in Melbourne, and many of them are considered to be authentic. However, nothing beats being in the motherland of pho and enjoying a steaming bowl of Viet yumness for the low, low price of $2. Reality hits really hard when you go for a meal here in Melbourne and a bowl of noodles is at least $10. Ten big buckaroos! And that’s just the minimum at the best of times.
It doesn’t make it any easier having moved from London where most of the time a simple takeaway cooked meal is about 6 quid. I know with conversion, that’s about $9.00 but it’s still a single-digit number!! I’m really bad with numbers (i’m sure my dearest hubby is nodding vigorously now) so when it’s single-digit, it’s good. Anyway, I digress – back to dreaming about Vietnamese food.
My brother-in-law (S) and his then fiancee, now loving wife (M) took us to this restaurant called Rat Huế (which means truly Huế). We were not in Huế then, still in Ho Chi Minh City. However S & M swore that this is THE place for Huế cuisine. We would never have found the place if not for their local knowledge. Tucked away in a back alleyway, Truly Huế is where locals go for their dose of central vietnamese fare.
We started off with this wonderful little steamed rice bites. They’re little – the size of a chinese sauce dish. Topped with what I think is minced smoked fish of some sort. The steamed rice cake part is rather bland but the fishy bits and the sauce that you drizzle over is what makes the dish so amazing. The flavours are clean and the texture of the rice cake is soft with a slight chewiness to it. What a perfect little starter.
Aside from the steamed rice cakes, we had a couple other starter dishes. Another version of the rice cakes, except it comes wrapped in banana leaves. Also yummy, but I kinda preferred the novelty of scooping the rice cake out of the tiny dishes. And also, a Viet meal isn’t quite complete without rice paper rolls.
Now comes Bun Bo Huế (Huế style beef vermicelli). The stock is made from cooking beef bones for a long time with aromatics like lemongrass, chilli and shrimp paste. It’s usually spicy and always delicious. The power packed soup base is what makes the dish so amazing. I could slurp on this all day long. We also tried a crab meat version of the noodles, also with a very tasty stock, and crab balls. Yum!
Accompanying the noodle dishes were the usual suspects – fresh bean shoots, basil leaves and mint leaves. What was new to me was the brown noodle-like pile next to the bean shoots. Apparently they are shredded banana flowers. I never knew you could eat banana flowers. (Actually, how does a banana flower look like? Time to google it!) They didn’t have much flavour but added much fibre and texture to the noodle dish. Ah…such wonderful memories….Truly Huế.
4E Le Loi, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City
So the hubby and I have been travelling quite a bit, especially while we were living the life in Europe the last four years. Our Lonely Planet collection is rather impressive I must say. These guide books have been our constant companion on our travels and their recommendations have been mostly spot-on. We’ve had fantastic meals from the comprehensive lists of restaurants, excellent walking tours, handy tips and tricks and not to forget the ‘express’ language lessons towards the end of the books.
Now, this particular activity in Ho Chi Minh City came as a surprise. I wasn’t expecting to do very much while we were in Saigon this time round as we were mainly there for the wedding of hubby’s baby bro. However, we saw this cooking class recommendation in LP, and thought we’d call and check it out. It turned out to be loads of delicious fun!!
We arrived at the villa which was about 20 minutes outside of the city. Its peaceful and homely environment was a world away from the crazy, busyness of the city. The classroom was set up like a quaint version of the Masterchef kitchen with individual wooden and bamboo stations and the decor included old style furniture, pictures, pots and pans.
The teacher/chef did not speak English, but the lovely interpreter was always there explaining things clearly and even assisting with some of the tasks at hand. She was helpful and very friendly.
While we waited for all the students to arrive, we were served hot tea and candied ginger. Yum! Soon enough, the class commenced and we proceeded to our prep stations, where we cut, julienned, grated and sliced through all the ingredients required for our first dish.
Deep fried vietnamese spring rolls – need I say more? We had minced pork, woodear fungus, yam and crab meat. With everything prepped, we proceeded to our cooking station where a whole row of condiments, herbs and spices awaited. We were taken through the various steps to prepare the spring rolls, the perfect way to roll them and fry them.
That’s me waiting for the spring rolls to cook and the lady in yellow was helping my mum-in-law with hers. We couldn’t wait to tuck in to our spring rolls! Oh before I forget – the skin for these spring rolls were special netted versions only available in Saigon. The netting allowed the oil to cook the spring rolls thoroughly and ‘drain’ itself after cooking. This produced an extremely crispy spring roll (it apparently should stay crispy for up to four hours).
Those were the most delicious spring rolls I’ve ever had. Not blowing my own trumpet, but seriously…they were amazing! It’s no surprise that I went to the market in search of those netted skins. I have ten packets sitting in my pantry now.
The second dish we learnt to cook was Caramel Pork. This is a popular local dish and can be found in restaurants as well as in homes. Before we crunched into our spring rolls, we had to get the pork marinated. There was an astonishing amount of sugar in there, but it’s not called caramel pork for nothing.
This dish was savoury, sweet and just perfect served with steamed rice with coconut juice. I can’t wait to try this out at home…oh maybe I should get myself a cute little claypot too!?
Sour clam soup with dill – My all time favourite dish while I was in Vietnam. I was stoked that this dish was included in this class. I first tried it the evening before in Cuc Gach Quan, and I was so excited that I could learn how to to cook it!
The soup is made up of lots of fresh herbs – namely dill, spring onions, green starfruit, tomatoes and chilli. Simple ingredients, but such amazing fresh flavours. I love this soup. I will be making it sometime soon, so watch this space!
Once both the pork and soup were cooked, the whole group of us sat down and enjoyed the meal together. It’s such a great activity to do together with friends and family. If you have three hours to spare while visiting Ho Chi Minh City, make a booking with these guys! Lots of fun with food.
Vietnam Cookery School
362/8 Ung Van Khiem St, Binh Thanh District,
Ho Chi Minh City , VIETNAM
Tel: +848 351 22 764
This is one meal I will have in my food memory bank for a long time. It came highly recommended by my brother-in-law. He was best man at his buddy’s wedding but really wanted us to check this place out. He even listed the must-try dishes for us. Cuc Gach Quan is one of the city’s hidden gems, literally. We had the taxi driver take us to the converted triple storey terrace house.
We arrived early around 7pm and the ground floor dining area was already abuzz with locals tucking in to home-style Vietnamese food. The restaurant is quirkily set up with mis-matched tables, chairs and stools. We were ushered to the top floor via a mini bridge over an indoor pond, up a flight of super steep steps surrounded by hanging pots of fresh herbs.
The funky top floor consisted of an array of wooden tables, chairs, couches and a huge wooden bed in the middle of the room, complete with antique lamps, fans and old-style crockery stacked in a corner. It felt like you were eating at grandma’s house.
The food, as is the decor, is a true representation of “home style”. The dishes were rustic, simple and absolutely delicious. We picked from the list of recommended dishes and they all turned out to be winners.
Fried fish with green mango. Crispy fish pieces with a tangy, salty, fish-sauced based dressing and a generous topping of fresh green mango. Top marks for texture and flavour! Hubby who’s not a fan of fish with bones still intact, loved the mango and dressing while I savoured every piece of delicious fish.
Crispy tofu with lemongrass and chilli. See those bits? They were crunchy bits of fried lemongrass and chilli. The tofu was fried to perfection – crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. The lemongrass and chilli crumble were the stars of the dish though. They were fragrant and tasty and went really well with the neutral taste of tofu. I couldn’t stop till every little lemongrass crumb was consumed.
Stir fried zucchini flowers. Never tried zucchini flowers cooked this way before. I’ve only tried the Italian style stuffed deep fried flowers. The zucchini flowers were much smaller, and very tender. This dish was fresh and simple. No sign of garlic or any other aromatics, just a plate of wonderfully cooked vegetables. I could eat this all day.
Sour clam soup with dill. This changed my world. It was refreshing, with a great balance of tartness and sweetness. The surprise ingredient in this was the fresh green starfruit. Not something we can get easily in Australia, but as I learnt in a cooking class later (post coming soon), the starfruit can be substituted with pineapple. This is to-die-for.
Aside from the wonderful and delicious food, there’s also a theme of reuse and recycle. No, no, not the food - all that is fresh and served only once! No recycling there. I was referring to the pre-loved furniture (think antique, but not quite as polished), the crockery (most were chipped and old, but they weren’t too grubby), and if you ordered a cold drink, in place of the regular plastic drinking straw, you get a trimmed stem of a water spinach plant (kang kong)! All nature friendly and very exciting for a first timer like me.
If you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh City, this place is a must. Loved, loved, loved it!
Cuc Gach Quan
10 Dang Tat Dinh, Q.1
Sai Gon, Viet Nam.
It was Election Day while we were in Ho Chi Minh City last month. Bright red flags were proudly displayed along the streets, but that was about it. No other electoral activities were evident. Ah well. Couldn’t expect very much to begin with right? It was also that very day that we found out that Facebook is banned in Vietnam. Really. Uncool.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Ho Chi Minh City is uber busy. Traffic is never-ending, the shops and stalls are bustling and even in the hidden back alleys, you’ll find the locals cleaning up, taking a nap or just going about their business. It was very interesting to watch the locals manoeuvre their way through the busy streets, or find space for more goods and belongings in tight spaces. The people are innovative, very business savvy and friendly. They work hard, and they play hard. There’s often people cooling off from the heat with iced drinks by the roadside drinks stall. The parks are filled in the mornings and evenings with people exercising, playing games or just hanging out with friends and family. Talk about work-life-balance!
Now on to the wonderful food of Vietnam. There were cooked food stalls at Ben Thanh Market (mentioned in my previous post) but I was too much of a chicken to sit by the stalls on day one of my visit to try them out. I really wanted some pho, but I was not going to risk it as the stalls were…ahem…way too “authentic”. Instead, we went to a shop near the market called Pho 2000 – the President’s Pho. Not kidding. Apparently Bill Clinton was there – complete with a faded framed photograph of Billy enjoying his pho, adorning the wall.
I was excited to experience my very first bowl of pho in the land of pho. Melbourne has a huge Vietnamese community and we are definitely spoilt for choice when it comes to Vietnamese cuisine. Like many others, I’ve had many bowls of pho before, but just the idea that I was in Vietnam and having pho took me to a whole new high. The ‘president’s pho’ did not disappoint. We ordered a bowl of beef pho and a plate of grilled chicken on broken rice.
The pho was light and fragrant with a delicious, clear soup and served with a generous helping of herbs (basil, mint, sprouts). The rice noodles had a wonderful springiness to it in contrast to the super tender wafers of beef brisket.
The marinated grilled pork served on rice was an eye-opener. The ones that I have tried in Australia tend to be a dryer version in comparison to this. The grilled pork was very tasty, evidence of hours of in marinade I’m sure, but the kicker was that it was succulent and tender. Accompanied with a quick stir fry of spring onions and bean sprouts and their spicy dipping sauce, nuoc cham. It looked really simple but oh, so yummy.
Each dish costs us about 35,000 dong which was about two Aussie dollars. Delicious and CHEAP! What more could a girl want eh?
Maybe to eat lots and still be svelte and slim like most vietnamese women in their traditional dress. Sigh…one can only dream…
Hey everyone, I’m baaaccckk!! Been back for a week now and have only just sorted out some of the photos from my trip to Vietnam. Here’s the first account of my visit. Ho Chi Minh City – formerly known as Saigon – is the largest city in Vietnam and has a population of 9 million people. And I think I saw at least half of that population on a honking moped somewhere along the busy streets. The place is busy, noisy and a training ground for a daredevil wannabe. Crossing the streets in the city takes guts, or if you’re visually impaired, you’d do really well. It’s crazy!
My very first stop in the city was none other than the famous Ben Thanh market – a large marketplace smack in the middle of the city in District 1. The huge space houses three sections. The first one sells all kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. The second section has displays of dried food, coffee, confectionery as well as some cooked food stalls selling steaming bowls of pho or plates of fresh rice paper rolls. Hawkers squat or sit on low stools as they prepare food, or wait for customers to peruse their wares. The third section caters mainly to the tourists – souvenirs, clothes and accessories…I spotted some purperrys and a pair of comvense sneakers. Haha.
Your olfactory senses go into overdrive as you wander through you the various sections – one moment you’re balking at the strong smell of fish and pig intestines, turn a corner and the aroma of coffee beans waft through, followed by the fragrance from pots of boiling stock for the pho. Just across from the food stalls, you’ll see dried fish or rows of colourful candied fruit. It’s a sight to behold. The smells, colours and noise can be overwhelming for a non-market lover, but I loved it.
Ben Thanh Market – a wonderful first stop in this busy, crowded city full of life, culture and history.
Stay tuned…more to come on Ho Chi Minh City…and not forgetting my very first pho meal. Yum yum.
p/s: Vietnamese dong confuses me. I’m not good with converting currency. Hubby was my walking conversion calculator for this trip. I wasn’t sure about spending 20,000 dong on a fridge magnet until he told me the magnet only costs US$1. Wow. Fun times ahead with my “millionaire” husband as he splashed out and got me that magnet.
The sun is shining its miraculous rays today. It’s beautiful. I’m so sun-deprived and vitamin D deficient and I long for brighter, longer and warmer days. Seeing this morning’s golden glow, I was reminded of my recent Mexican vacay and realised I haven’t posted anything on Chichen Itza!
The Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza were founded in 400 A.D. It is located north of the Yucatan Peninsula (now known as Mexico) and is now part of the new seven wonders of the world – as declared on 07.07.07. The other six wonders are Christ Redeemer in Brazil, the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan and Macchu Pichu in Peru. I’m so pumped I got to check off one of the seven wonders in my travels to date.
The archaeological site is a ‘showroom’ of one the world’s best architects! I’m saying this because the well preserved structures were all made by hand and were all aligned perfectly and with utmost precision. And the Mayans certainly didn’t have modern tools to help them. It’s totally awe-inspiring.
The name Chichen Itza means ‘At the mouth of the well of Itza’. Our guide did show us the ‘well’ which was literally about an acre in diameter. It was used in the ancient times as a sacrificial well where people were thrown in alive to appease to Gods (in times of drought or the like) and those who survived were considered to be ‘seers’. Yikes – I wonder how one was ‘selected’ to be sacrificed…
The most famous structure of Chichen Itza is the main temple, Kukulcan. This pyramid structure is the work of some geniuses (genii). Inside the temple lies a Chac Mool statue and a throne in a shape of a jaguar. The interior of the pyramid is no longer accessible (since it was closed to the public 6 years ago). So we kinda admired the structure from the outside.
Strange fact: When we stood at the front of the temple of Kukulcan and clapped, the echo that came back sounded just like birds chirping. It didn’t matter how far or near you stood in front of it – the chirps were consistent. We’ll never know how that works but basically when you’re there, you’ll see a bunch of people clapping and looking amazed as the pyramid chirpped back. Crazy but true.
The columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors was another amazing sight. Every single column was perfectly aligned. If you stood in front of the first column, you’ll never see anything else behind it. Even if it was diagonal. Perfectly aligned – every single one of them.
There was also a ‘football field’. You heard it! Except that players hit the ball with a stick through a stone goal high up on a wall. I don’t think it was an easy sport. And get this, the leader of the winning team got to sacrifice himself to the gods. Once again, it was considered an honour. Losing one’s head over a game was certainly taken very literally here.
All along the dirt tracks within the site, there were also modern day Mayans displaying their skills and work of art. Albeit in very different ways than their ancestors.
I’m really privileged to have visited this place. The journey there was long and arduous, it didn’t help that we were in a hurry (we had a dinner to go back to at the resort) and our driver did not understand our urgency. But I’m glad we went, saw and believed in the splendour of the works of ancient Mayans.
For more information about Chichen Itza, visit this informative site.
I miss the sun. I do. It gets a little too grey for my liking in London. Too much grey…I want bright blue and yellow and gold, some fuschia, a little bit of vermillion. I want colours! See what lack of vitamin D does to me?
I was very happy while in Mexico recently, Playa Del Carmen to be specific. The sun was shining and I was gleaming. “Playa” as it is affectionately referred to by the locals, is just south of spring break fave Cancun and sits along the coast of the Carribean Sea. It used to be a small, sedate fishing village but is now a popular resort city, bustling with sun seekers from all over the world. Like me!
We managed to pry ourselves away from the luxurious environment of the resort (Grand Velas Riviera Maya) one afternoon, hopped in a cab and went for a wander in the city’s pride and joy – “Fifth Avenue” – a three-mile long shopping and food strip. There’s no similarity to its namesake, the midtown Manhatten’s prestigious shopping district. There were mainly tourist gift shops, restaurants, jewellers and cigar shops. All bright, colourful and cheerful.
There were massage stalls (a back rub anyone?) and fruit stalls displaying cut fruits in plastic cups, art shops full of eclectic wares and paintings.
Piles of balero cups (traditional mexican toy), sombreros, tacky tees…
When it was snack time, there’s always a churros stand. Yum!
Soon enough, it was time to return to the resort. We stopped by the beach and paid a visit to these guys.
Beautiful creatures aren’t they?
I miss you Playa Del Carmen.
I’m not usually this organised. What with being jet-lagged at the beginning of the week, and having to drink copious amounts of tea and diet coke to stay awake through the day…I’m surprised I even had the energy to get some of my Miami photos sorted and edited. So…surprise! Here’s my first vacation post.
We crashed with a friend in his apartment in Ft. Lauderdale during our weekend stay and drove daily to more exciting parts of town like Miami and Key West. There were long rides on the harrowing freeways of South Florida (there were some insane driving moments – and did you know you’re allowed to speak on the cell phone while driving? Erm yes, WITHOUT a handsfree set!) but at the end of each ride, we were rewarded with sights to behold and gorgeous food to stuff our faces with.
Marker 88 is a mile marker on U.S. Highway 1. The mile markers in Florida begin in Key West at zero and go northward ending in Fort Kent, Maine. It is 2,390 miles long. Marker 88 is also a restaurant. Yes I’m sure you’ve guessed it – it sits right at the 88th mile marker – in the village of Islamorada. (Also known as ‘village of islands’)
The restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside…but once you step into the grounds, you’re greeted by the beautiful Florida bay. Calm, clear, aquamarine water lapping on the side while you sit by the bay.
White wicker dining furniture dominates the front of the restaurant facing the bay, but there are also a couple of outdoor canopy-covered wooden booths. Cute! Of course we chose to dine in the booths. Right next to the pier sits a short stretch of beach with colourful deck chairs, kayak parking spaces (people do kayak instead of drive to the restaurant – how cool!) and cute benches for couples to snuggle and smooch on while they watch the sunset.
Now comes the food. We started with cocktails and coronas. (Yes, light version’s mine…stop with the scoffing already)
Then the appetizers. I have to say, this was a fabulous start to our eating extravaganza. We had the hot blue crab dip (omg…creamy, slightly spicy, cheesy blue crab dip is to die for!), crab cake (none of those potato-pretending-to-be-crab patties. This was full of chunky crab meat. So delish!) and conch fritters. I’ve never tried conch before. The only conch I know of was from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ok, irrelevant info…anyhoo… Conch is a large mollusk (like a sea snail for lack of better description) and in this dish, it’s cut up into small pieces and mixed with a thick batter and piped into the deep fryer. It doesn’t taste like much, but hey it’s a fritter. It’s deep fried. It has mayo and salsa dipping sauces. Therefore it’s good.
Please excuse the blurry conch fritter shot. I thought it looked ok on my tiny netbook screen. I blame jet-lag. And I’m not too enthused with the idea of re-loading and editing another photo. Sorry!
Making up for it with the mains now. Grilled Mahi Caesar - Grilled mahi over a Caesar with Haiku tomatoes, roasted red peppers & Reggiano croutons. Yum or what? Captain’s Platter - Broiled Florida Keys Lobster, grilled mahi and grilled shrimp. Need I say more? And the guys shared an Islamorada Fish Sandwich – Blackened fresh Mahi topped with sauteed onions and cheddar. Served on a Kaiser.
A lot of food for three right? Which explains why we only shared one dessert. Marker 88′s most famous dessert – Key lime baked alaska. Divine!
That’s it for now. I’m off to Amsterdam for the weekend. I know – it’s a ‘tough’ life. But I’ll be back with more travel news and I promise I won’t be trying any space cakes while I’m there!
Marker 88 Restaurant
8800 Overseas Highway (mile marker 88)
Islamorada, FL 33036
I’ve been crazy busy since I’ve been back from Paris so I haven’t had the chance to blog much. Just to keep the drooling going, I thought I’d just quickly pop these in. Two meals that I had in my last Paris trip. The first was our late night dinner on arrival to the St. Germain area where our hotel was. The hotel clerk recommended Le Nemrod to us, which I’m sure was no coincidence that it was also on my ‘to eat’ list. (Thanks again to David Lebovitz)
A busy café in a quiet residential street, Le Nemrod opens and serves till late. We were there at almost 10.30pm, plonked ourselves under a covered terrace and was served by friendly and professional waitstaff. Our first foray into the weekend ‘nom-ings’ started off with dishes like Confit de canard, grilled steak and creme brulee. I’m not quite sure if the food was really, really good or that I was ravenous. Everything tasted yummy. Although recommendations for Le Nemrod always included brunch specialties like their salad or Croque Monsieur.
We often go out of our way to visit recommended restaurants, even if it means having to trek across town. No surprise then that we took the metro to Maison Blanche in search of a Vietnamese favourite – Le Bambou. The area surrounding Place d’Italie can be described as mini Vietnam. We finally got to Le Bambou only to be told that they were closed for the day (yeah ok, we were there at 3.30pm) Boo! So we took our chances and walked into the next nearest viet restaurant – Palais De Asie.
All I really wanted was a steaming bowl of pho which I’m glad to report – was wonderfully big and delicious. I had the ‘house pho’ which consisted of pork cake, liver, kidney, blood cubes, fish cake and bean sprouts. Hubby had the Vietnamese chicken chop with rice. Both were massively yummy.
When in Paris, gotta have some Vietnamese. It’s cheap, it’s good.
51 Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris
93 Avenue Ivry, Paris
Sandra, our wonderful B&B hostess in Venice, recommended La Cantina to us – for that spot of afternoon chill out. After a long, hot afternoon snaking out way through the complicated streets and bridges of Venice, we were really glad to have a little relaxing drink before finding a place for dinner.
Although there were plenty of seats within La Cantina, everyone claimed a table out on the walkway, where we enjoyed the evening breeze and people-watched. As it wasn’t along the main tourist thoroughfare, La Cantina was ideally less hectic and felt more like the local hangout.
After ordering our tipple – cold, crisp white house wine for me and a local beer for hubby – we felt a little nibbly was in order. We indicated our desire for a little something something with our ever friendly and humorous waiter and he simply asked if we wanted just cheese, or ham and cheese. We opted for the meat and milk option of course.
We didn’t know what to expect but what a sight when the wooden serving board was placed before us with three serves of the most eye-catching salami, prosciutto and cheese crostinis. The bread was slightly warmed and the clever combinations of various meats and cheeses were just what we needed.
Once again, the ingredients were simple and fresh – yet the flavours were magical and we even considered having loads more nibbles (freshly shucked oysters and fish platters were options) in place of dinner. Obviously, we didn’t as we had a couple of restaurants we have yet to check out.
However, I will not be forgetting those little crostinis anytime soon nor that view through my vino.
Campo San Felice
I love fresh food markets. The wet and stinky ones in Singapore as well as my favourite Victoria and Footscray markets in Melbourne Australia or the gourmet Borough market in London. When I had the chance to visit a fresh food market in Venice, I jumped at the opportunity.
Nestled within the historical heart of Venice is the famous Rialto market. To add to the excitement of the day, we had to take a traghetto across the canal to get to the market. The traghetto is a public gondola ferry that only takes you across the canal (in place of a bridge). You get on the gondola with a whole other bunch of people, the gondolier dictates who stands and who sits just to balance out the weight on the boat, and in less than five minutes, you are across the canal. It’s a great experience and only costs 50 euro cents.
First enter the pescheria – the fish market, and a feeling of amazement takes over. Fishes l have never seen before in a market lay writhing on the various counters. Housewives rattling in rapid Italian exchange conversations with the fishmongers.
Giant, whole (and very ugly) monkfish, abundance of crayfish tails, a heap of slimy octopus, a huge head of a swordfish…what amazing sights to behold.
Walk past the pescheria, and there lies the erbaria – the fruit and vegetable haven. Fresh, colourful mountains of heirloom tomatoes, sliced up artichoke hearts floating in water, gorgeous zucchini flowers and basketfuls of fresh herbs – makes me want to buy a whole bunch of them and head into my kitchen straightaway for a big cookout.
Markets. I never enjoyed or appreciated them when I was a kid, but now, whenever I’m in a new town or city, the markets are almost always my favourite spots to visit.
Our very intention for making a stop in Bologna on our one week rush tour through Northern Italy was so we could eat Spaghetti Bolognese. Haha – yes, a very frivolous notion. The fact is that in Bologna, what we call Spaghetti Bolognese is actually pasta con ragu – pasta with meat sauce. We had not just one pasta con ragu, but several! They were soooo good.
However, we got ourselves so much more than just pasta con ragu. Winning hands down from all the other meals from any other city was this one particular one we had at Drogheria Della Rosa. Once a pharmacy, this rustic eatery is a true local’s favourite. The shelves still adorn jars and bottles from its pharmacy days. It’s location is off the beaten track and to know that we were the only non-locals was a most comforting thought.
This restaurant does not have a written menu. What they serve that particular day is what’s fresh from the market that morning. We arrived rather early by Italian standards, had free choice of tables inside or outside under the covered walkway.
We were served a glass of prosecco (on the house) and waited in anticipation to hear what’s being offered for lunch. The sole waiter went around busy serving all the tables around us, and soon enough, he arrived with a plate of prosciutto, salami, mozzarella and delicious warm bread (also on the house!). Right, this is a good start. We were wondering at that point if we were going to get a chance to order food, or were we going to be eating whatever they brought to us. Sure seems that way, not that we were complaining.
To our relief, the rather frenzied but friendly waiter came to our rescue and told us what was on the menu that day. Everything sounded so good – I couldn’t decide on my secondi (second course) and left it to the waiter to bring me what he thought was good.
We started off with none other than tagliatalle con ragu (gotta try their ragu!) and tortellini in broth. The ragu was meaty and very tasty, with the pasta cooked to perfection. The tortellini was a surprisingly wonderful dish. Little morsels of pasta when bitten into, produced the most delightful flavours of savoury pork and herbs. The broth was clear and simple and brought out the sweetness of the tortellini.
Oh before I forget, I had ordered a glass of red wine to go with my meal and the waiter brought and opened a whole bottle. We got his attention and told him about it, and all he did was shrug and say it’s okay! (Just picture the Italian style waving of arms and shrugging) Talk about taking casual dining to a whole new level.
Now the mains were melt-in-the-mouth veal fillets, cooked two different ways. One of which Paul had ordered – Veal fillet in balsamic sauce and the other was my ‘surprise’ dish.
Fillets of rare veal – cooked crisp on the outside and succulent and tender on the inside. I do not normally like my meat so rare (medium rare at the most) but this was definitely one of my top fave steak dishes ever. So simple, so delicious.
The version with the balsamico – most excellent. With the rich, dark gravy made solely from balsamic vinegar and creme fraise. You’d expect a strong tangy vinegary flavour but to our surprise, the sauce was mellow and creamy and enhanced the perfectly cooked piece of fillet. The super friendly owner, Emanuele Addone popped by for a chat and even gave us tips on how to prepare the balsamic sauce.
If only we had the space for dolci but alas, we lost out on that one. Paul went to foot the bill, and we didn’t know what to expect. That meal could easily have come up to €150 for all we know. The sweet deal was that for all that we ate and drank – it was only €60 for the both of us. Brilliant all round! For anyone heading to Bologna – I highly recommend Drogheria Della Rosa. No regrets making that stopover in Bologna, like EVER!
Drogheria Della Rosa
Via Cartoleria 10
There are many gelaterias in Italy that claim to be the very best. Some announce it on their shopfront – “No. 1 in Sienna”, or “Best Gelati in Roma”. Now I do not claim to have tried all of them, but I have had many serves of italian gelati – in Florence, Rome, Venice, Sorrento, Sienna. And I can safely say in my own little gelati-scoffing world – there is none better than La Sorbetteria Castiglione in Bologna.
In a humble location, quite a walk from the town centre of Bologna lies a very popular gelateria. According to Lonely Planet, long queues are the norm. We were lucky (well, sort of) because the weather was rather sucky (read: grey skies and drizzle) plus it was only 11am (not quite the regular gelati-eating time). Walking into the gelateria, there were none of those extravagant mounds of gelati with corresponding fruit or props indicating each flavour. Instead, you’ll choose from a list of flavours, and the server uncovers the aluminium covered containers and scoops out your chosen dolci. You wonder how the server remembers which container holds which flavour as they were all unlabeled, but she speedily whips those scoops out without a single mistake.
At the back of the store, you’ll see the area where these gelati are freshly churned each day. Big, shiny machines that make sweet, creamy magic.
I had the pistachio and white chocolate gelati. It was seriously the creamiest, smoothest, most delicious gelati I have ever had. None of the over sugary stuff – La Sorbettheria’s claim to fame is that they produce egg-free gelati. I didn’t know there were eggs in gelati to begin with but perhaps that was the winning factor. The pistachio flavour was evident and had a wonderful nutty aroma about it, the white chocolate was creamy and had crunchy bits of walnut (or at least I think it’s walnuts) and you could taste the milky white chocolate and it’s really not just vanilla pretending to be white chocolate.
Paul had the dark, white chocolate and espresso flavours. If you love chocolate, you’ll love this wonderful combination. They’re not kidding about it being ‘dark’ chocolate. Cocoa-rich and indulgent, with a slight bittersweet aftertaste. It was every choc-lover’s dream. And you can’t really go wrong with coffee based flavours in Italy I suppose.
Ever since I’ve had La Sorbetteria’s gelati, every other gelati has paled in comparison. I’ve been ruined.
La Sorbetteria Castiglione
Via Castiglione, 44
40124 Bologna, Italia
We popped over to Parma for half a day on the way to Bologna. Somehow I had this romantic notion that Parma is a town brimming with prosciutto and parmesan cheese. Alas, the streets were not lined with ham and cheese…but we did peruse a couple of delis that were. More on that in a bit.
Before we embarked on our walk through Parma, we found a sunny spot in the square and enjoyed a spot of breakfast. Freshly baked baguette filled with paper-thin prosciutto and finished off with a latte macchiato.
We were enthralled by the goods displayed in the local deli and lingered in the store for a while as we scoured through the varieties of dried pasta, the giant wheels of parmesan of varying aged stages, the legs of prosciutto that hung above the counters and lined the walls, the baskets of salami and multiple jars of olives and pesto. Everything looked delicious and I had to refrain and only allowed myself to purchase a large wedge of parmesan reggiano. Mmmmm….chheeeeesse.
For lunch, we went to another off-the-beaten-track restaurant called Trattoria Corrieri. Recommended by a couple we met on the train journey to Parma, Lonely Planet and it was the No.3 restaurant on Trip Advisor. Good stuff then!
We were seated under a vine covered balcony, where sunlight streamed in through the gaps, and a gentle breeze cooled the dining area. Trattoria Corrieri is well known for their prosciutto and without hesitation I ordered the local favourite of prosciutto with melon. Hubby decided to go all carnivorous and ordered the mixed meat platter.
The prosciutto and melon dish was superb. Thin slices of ham covering half the plate and three thick, juicy wedges of sweet melon. Very refreshing and a fantastic starter.
Hubby enjoyed the mixed meat platter which consisted of salty slices of prosciutto, spicy salami, a slice which tasted very much like corned beef and another which tasted like luncheon meat – which was strangely very comforting and familiar.
We then shared a three-flavoured ravioli and a serve of Parma-style risotto. The ravioli was fresh with eggy pasta skins filled with ricotta and spinach, butternut squash and ricotta with artichoke. All three had very distinct flavours and with just a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, the dish was complete.
The parmesan risotto was surprising delicious considering there was nothing in it, well…except for cheese. Creamy risotto, rich and full-flavoured. We were glad we shared the pasta because they were just a tad rich and we were just that little bit cheesed out by then. Now on to more good food in Bologna!
The following eats took place on 13 June 2010.
There’s not that much to say except that all my meals totally rocked it today. We hiked, swam in the Mediterranean, got a tan and had the most wonderful meals today at Cinque Terre. We started off with a hike to Cognilia, 4 km from Vernazza and found our place at Manarola, where we had a reservation at Aristide. Highly recommended by a friend as well as Trip Advisor. And all was good. I’ll keep my ramblings to a minimum and show you some food porn instead.
You would think that all we did was eat. Well, we did…but we did have normal breaks in between. After a sun drenched afternoon, we headed back to the hotel for a nap, and soon enough, it was dinner time again – I love vacations – eat, sleep, eat, sleep – it’s perfect! Anyway, we headed back to Vernazza for dinner, and went to a restaurant called Franzi.
The following eats took place on 12 June 2010.
We arrived in Milan after a rather pleasant two hour flight to Milan…to get onto an intercity train for another two hours. This brought us to Sestri Levanti, and after a ten minute wait, we boarded yet another train to our eventual destination – Vernazza. Phwoah…long journey!
Vernazza is one of the five towns along Cinque Terre. The rather gruelling all day journey to this coastal town is somewhat worth it. We love the small town feel, yet there’s so much happening! If not for the fact we were rather exhausted by the time we arrived, we would have changed into our swimwear and gone for a dip. The place is beautiful, full of quaint little houses built on the terraces of the cliffs of Vernazza.
Now to focus on the droolfactor – FOOD. We were famished from a long journey and our very first bite of Northern Italy was into two amazing wedges of soft, chewy foccacia topped with tasty cheese and pomodoro. How can something so simple be so delicious? Only the Italian can do this.
Sitting by the beach, gorging on beautifully chewy bread and washing it all down with local italian beer – what a great way to start the vacay!
We sat in the sun, snoozed and chatted and soon enough it was time for din-din! Yay! We avoided the touristy square of Vernazza and ended up in this little trattoria that had locals and tourists alike sharing the parasol covered outdoor dining area.
We started with none other than vino casa – house wine, and shared a starter of ravioli fillled with fresh fish. Oh my, this was fantastically simple and fresh and delicious. The pasta was perfectly al dente – bite into it and you taste the sea – fresh fish (I’m guessing haddock here), with a tasty clam, tomato and thyme sauce. YUM!
Our mains – I had the house speciality of baked anchovies with potatoes and Paul had the stuffed mussels. The waiter nodded with approval at our choices and that hiked up my anticipation of the meal.
Only to be disappointed. The baked anchovies were rather bland, as were the potatoes. There was nothing truly outstanding about the dish except that I had to spend a lot of time extracting bit of hardy fish bones, and swallowing the rest with the hope it doesn’t stick into my throat.
The stuffed mussels were also not spectacular. Couldn’t quite differentiate between the actual shellfish and the mushy stuffing.
To finish off the night, my dearest hubby brought me to an italian bar to watch the England vs. USA match (World cup obviously)…where I was happily ensconced in a corner with more wine…heh. Once USA scored and the bar roared in unison with elation, my UK supporting hubby decided that we should head back to our B&B…
Let’s hope tomorrow’s food adventure gets us better results. We made reservations for lunch after our hike to Manarola. Can’t wait.
I have plans to revisit Italy next year. I.CAN’T. WAIT!
Besides my usual comfort food of rice, noodles and singapore hawker fare…pasta comes in at no. 2. It’s the food of choice when I run out of dinner ideas, or there’s nothing much left in the fridge or when I feel like a good old carbo fill-up. Outside of Italy, there are countless number of good italian restaurants. Some cheap and good, and some just makes you wonder how much you’re paying per strand of spaghetti.
Back in Melbourne Australia, there’s ‘little italy’ in Lygon Street. Restaurants range from the cosy Mama Papa family-run eateries to the churn-out-pizzas-by-the-minute joints. However my favourite italian restaurant in Melbourne is not resident of the famed italian street. It’s a Grand Prix memorabilia-filled restaurant called Woodstock Cafe in Fitzroy North. The wooden panel lined walls are covered with pictures of cars and Grand Prix events, there’s a Vespa and a vintage Fiat in the middle of the dining room…splendid. And the food has a comforting home-cooked style to it. Pizzas are paper thin yet has a nice chewy texture and topped simply with fresh ingredients like parma ham and peppery rocket. Pastas are cooked to perfection, al-dente and there’s no overkill on ingredients or flavours. Simple. Best part of my last experience there – we were offered fresh out of the oven apple strudel by ‘mama woodstock’, provided we finished our food! Makes you feel like you’re sitting in grandma’s kitchen. Last I heard, they’ve now renovated and I’m not even sure the Fiat is still there…time for a visit methinks!
Back to pasta. Outside of italy, one of my most memorable pasta meals was in a little restaurant in North End, Boston called Ristorante Fiore on Hanover Street. Similar to Lygon in Melbourne, North End is chock full of Italian restaurants and businesses. It was in this little restaurant that my view of risotto was forever changed. I never used to like risotto as I felt it’s usually gluggy and much too heavy, but the clam risotto that we ordered was quite the opposite! The rice was cooked to perfection, with every grain beautifully coated with the clam juices and sauce. The flavours were robust, clams were fresh and succulent, and there was just no fault to this dish.
The lobster ravioli was just as delicious, with large parcels of lobster-filled goodness in a tangy tomato sauce with just a touch of creme fraiche. The servings were not large, as expected in almost all US-based eateries, but it was well portioned for one. Enough to have you lick the plate clean, not too little to have you crave for more. Just perfect.
Also in line for some pasta fame were linguini with french beans tossed in fresh pesto and pappardelle in slow cooked beef ragu. They were non-fancy, down to earth good pasta meals and one that I remember with much fondness.
Sitting in the little courtyard with good friends, basking in the sun – nothing could have been better then except maybe….one more serve of that delectable clam risotto please?
The most memorable thing about my trip to Aarhus and Copenhagen turns out to be a humble little hot dog. Yes, a hot dog! Steff-Houlberg is a name familiar to many hot dog lovers. It’s a fast food chain from Denmark that started its first sausage stall in 1921.
A typical Steff ‘red’ hot dog consists of a red, long and thin sausage, usually boiled and stuffed in a soft roll, topped with pickles, onions and lotsa condiments.
However, my experience from trying different Steff stalls resulted in various levels of ‘yum’. The overall taste is pretty much the same, but it’s the little things that makes a standard, off-the-stand hot dog that much more enjoyable.
My favourite Steff was actually the very first one that I tried in Aarhus – the second largest city in Denmark. This, to me, was special Steff. The soft rolls were lightly grilled, warming the bread and giving it a slight crispy exterior and a soft, chewy interior. We asked for ‘the works’ which included cheese, fresh diced onions, crispy fried onions (ristede) and a dollop of sweet relish. Topped with mustard and ketchup, we were ready to have a messy good time.
As we ventured across the rest of Aarhus and Copenhagen, the ‘Steffs’ we encountered were of the ‘nothing-to-shout-about’ variety, they kept their standards, but no one grilled the soft rolls, there wasn’t any relish in sight and only sliced pickles in its place. Some came overwhelmed by raw, chopped onions which I promptly swept aside.
I have been raving about the red hot dog (røde pølser) but in a sausage wagon, you will find a whole variety of other sausages like the grilled chicken ones or the smoked pork versions. Typically, the original way of eating the sausage in Denmark is with some ketchup, Danish remoulade (similar to a tartar sauce), mustard and the sausage is separate from the bread.
I never knew I could reminisce so much about a sausage in a bread roll, but I do remember that first bite with much droolworthy fondness. Just as Humphrey Bogart once said ‘A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz’. There wasn’t a ball park in sight where we were in Denmark, but the hot dog was indeed better than many meals we had in the local restaurants.
Do you remember Chef Spike from Top Chef? I don’t. Mainly because I didn’t follow the television reality series. I do however, remember with much fondness my visit to the Good Stuff Eatery when I was in Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. This family-run burger joint was a vision of Chef Spike, and together with his mum and the rest of his family, they started this ever popular burger restaurant.
The restaurant boasts handcrafted burgers, hand-cut fries, handspun ice-cream and shakes. It’s become quite an institution in D.C. and I am really glad I was there to experience it all. The buzz of the restaurant matches the quality of the food they produce. It’s hip, fresh and very happening. As you head up the stairs to the small dine-in area, you’re greeted with ‘goodness gracious’ on the wall. The menu is equally young and jazzy – with names of burgers that bring a smile to your face. It’s a tough decision with all the delicious sounding burgers like ‘Spike’s 5 napkin’, ‘Blazin’ Barn’ and ‘Good Stuff Melt’ – just to name a few.
Fresh baked, buttery Pennsylvania Dutch buns are filled with juicy organic beef patties, ruby red tomatoes and topped with good stuff like drippingly yummy chilli, or smokey bacon. Forget about the diet, you just have to tuck in and enjoy. Their hand-cut fries are served in a large brown paper bag and it’s hot, crispy and delicious.
For those who are not keen on all that meat, they have an aptly named vegetarian option called ‘Vegetarian are people too ‘shroom burger’. The burger comes with a whole, fat and juicy portobello mushroom top in a panko crumb crust, topped with muenster and cheddar cheese and their ‘good stuff sauce’. A definite winner – even for meat loving peeps like me.
So when you’re next on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and fancy a burger – you know where to go. It’s spiked. It’s good.
Good Stuff Eatery
303 Pennsylvania Ave S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20003
TRIPE. Not everyone’s favourite food topic. You either love it or hate it.
Tripe comes from the stomach of cows, pigs, sheep and even deer. Beef tripe consists of the first three chambers of the cow’s stomach. There’s the smooth tripe called the ‘rumen’, the honeycomb tripe known as the ‘reticulum’ and the book/leaf tripe called the ‘omasum’. I’ve tried all three kinds and in general, tripe doesn’t have much taste on its own. The various ridges and flaps absorb the sauces and spices really well which then makes the dish so flavourful.
The type of tripe that I have consumed the most, is steamed tripe – done Chinese dim sum style. The book tripe (‘omasum’) is usually used in this dish. The tripe is steamed with ginger, garlic and spring onions. Many people think that strong spices are required to make the tripe more ‘edible’. However, this delicious version is mild, with a clean and crisp flavour. There is a bit of a bite in the tripe which gives the texture of the dish that added level of oomph. (This texture has been a turn-off for many) but the rest of us tripe-lovers do enjoy the extra chew.
Portuguese style tripe is a typical and popular dish in Porto and is aptly named Tripas a Moda do Porto. This version of tripe is cooked with white beans. It is a very hearty dish with generous chunks of tripe (mainly honeycomb and flat tripe) in a tomato based sauce and a sprinkling of dried herbs. The dish is eaten with ‘arroz branco’ (white rice). The tripe is chewy and the combination of the white beans gives the dish a slightly creamy taste.
Now come the italians. I love italian food. A humble piece of tripe (again the honeycomb and flat tripe) can be transformed to a rich stew in the form of Trippa alla Romana, found mainly in Rome (but can also be found in many other parts of the country). Trippa alla Romana is cooked with the ‘stew basics’ like celery, carrot and onion as well as wine, tomatoes and roman mint. Tender pieces of tomato-coated tripe topped with the italian touch of grated parmegiano or pecorino. It is eaten on its own just as you would any stew, aided by some sauce mopping action with chunks of bread. Totally divine…
If you intend to cook tripe at home, it is highly recommended that the tripe is washed and cleaned meticulously. And prior to cooking in sauce or as a stew, the tripe has to be boiled in salted water for two to three hours to soften and further clean it. It’s a lot of work! Which is why I leave the cooking to the experts.
Besides spearheading world exploration, I personally believe that next in line for fame in Portugal is their Pasteis de nata, commonly known to non-portuguese speaking folks as Portuguese egg (custard) tarts. On my recent trip to Portugal, I sought out the pasteis of the land to see what the fuss is all about and what makes these little tarts so special.
It is believed that Catholic monks created these sweet little bites before the 18th century in the town of Belém in Lisbon and the recipe has been passed from generation to generation throughout the country. Obviously, the rightful claim to the original recipe lies with Casa Pastéis de Belém, the bakery known by many as THE place for pasteis de nata.
I did not start my pasteis quest with the tarts from Belem. Instead I bit into my first tart from a pasteleria in Lisbon city called Flor Da Se. It was a rather disappointing start, I must say. I had a preconception of what the portuguese egg tart ‘should’ taste like – light, flaky pastry, creamy custard and caramelised custard tops. The Flor Da Se version looked just like I imagined it to be, but instead of the light flaky crust, the pastry was too tough and the custard was runny and overly sweet (for my liking) and it just didn’t quite make it on my top tart chart. Looked good, tasted bleh.
Next in line was Casa Brasileira. This pasteleria marketed itself rather well. They were located on the main pedestrianised street of Lisbon city and had a large display window overflowing with loads of pasteis de nata. It boded well that there were many locals as well as tourists in the bakery and so we thought it would be worth the try. Looks-wise, the tart looked exactly the same as Flor Da Se’s…but the taste and texture was a huge step up. The pastry was flakier and not tough to bite through, the custard was creamy and sufficiently sweet. It wasn’t bad at all.
Fast-forward to my visit to the infamous Casa Pasteis de Belem. The place was packed! Long queues snaked around in the shop and at times out through the door. They were churning out heaps of these little sweet babies and the best part of it was the tarts were utterly fresh and warm from the oven. They even come with sachets of cinnamon and powdered sugar for extra topping if you so wished. I decided to taste it without and Pasteis de Belem sure lived up to its name. The tart was warm, the pastry had just the right amount of bite and was buttery and flaky, the custard was smooth, creamy and delicious. Apparently, these guys have the original ‘secret’ recipe and they were quite ‘Colonel Sanders with the eleven herbs and spices’ about it, but good for them, I’d say keep the secret, it’s worth it – none of the many other tarts we tried throughout the trip came close. Pasteis de Belem got my vote and it sure made my top tart chart.
Pasteis de Belem
Rua de Belem, 84-92