Friday, May 20, 2016

Matcha Black Sesame Babka

We picked up some matcha powder from a baking supply store when we were in Taiwan, so you might notice that the next few posts are matcha based as I wanted to use up this delicious flavour before the expiry date. I've been pretty fixated on the beautiful braided babkas that other bloggers are making, so I thought I would give it a try!
Ugh, once I mixed the dough, I knew I went too far. I had overworked it and it wasn't going to turn out like I wanted it to. It was going to be tough with minimal rise. But I forged ahead as I didn't want to throw away all those ingredients.
I was fighting against all the gluten as I rolled the dough out as much as I could. It was really elastic and as I predicted, tough and strong. Bah, I wasn't trying to build some crazy structure!
But that braid, it is quite beautiful. Okay, maybe "braid" is going a bit far as I only managed to give it a few twists. I love seeing the swirl and black sesame paste oozing out.
The recipe I followed allowed for two loafs!
It came out of the oven all bubbling, sticky, and shiny with the best aroma. I thought, it just might have turned out fine?
Ah, slicing into it proved me otherwise. It had a stubborn mind of its own, not staying together and isolating itself as little babka pieces. As you can see in the photo above, there aren't a lot of air pockets in the dough.
Well, at least I knew where I went wrong! Next time I'll have to remember to have a gentler touch when kneading the dough. If you want to give it a try, I followed Fix Feast Flair's recipe. Alana has the most gorgeous step-by-step photographs!

If you're in Canada like us, we're wishing you a happy Victoria Day! Hopefully there's no more snow and this long weekend marks the beginning of summer. Or at least consistent warm weather, I really want to wear more dresses and skirts without the bundling up of coats and boots.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Taiwan 2016

Oh Taiwan, we didn't start with the right foot. Airport services in Taipei were very slow and frustrating. It felt like the lines were never going to move and that there weren't enough staff on hand to help out. I just hope they work out a more efficient system soon! We also arrived of the day when a 6.4 earthquake hit causing buildings to collapse in Tainan. It was all over the news wherever we went as the world was being updated on the search-and-rescue progress. Investigations later revealed that the developers had cut corners and were responsible for the poor building structure. I don't know how I felt at the time as it was a combination of sadness, anger, and worry - because lives were lost, people almost got away with their crimes, and who knows what other buildings weren't stable to be in?
Despite the mixed reaction, once we got out of the airport, we got the warmest welcome from Howard's cousin. They brought me hot chocolate to help keep me warm and some Apple Sidra for Howard as we hightailed out of the busy airport and into the night. After settling in that first night, we were ready for Chinese New Year and food!
Seriously, you might notice that I chose to post all food photos here, but that's because it felt like we were constantly eating. We would go out for breakfast or brunch or lunch. Visit some relatives who would offer us snacks. Go out and eat. Have dinner. Then head to a night market to snack. Come home to rest and . . . you know, indulge in snacks. I'm surprised we didn't gain 20 pounds from all that eating. It felt rude not to when all the elders and relatives were pushing plates and bowls of food at us.
We went to the night markets for fried chicken, fried squid, stinky tofu, aiyu jelly, and shaved ice. We lined up for world-famous soup dumplings and beef noodle soup (which I still think Howard's mom makes better). Don't get me wrong, we did lots of sightseeing too. We went to the mountain tops via spiralized roads and took in the beautiful scenery of misty mountains, glimpses of the ocean, and how amazingly natural most of the country is. Despite being a small island, there is a lot of nature that's protected and left alone.
We went to the Tamsui District to marvel at the river and explore the Old Streets and markets. It felt like it wasn't ever going to end and the crowds! Just mass exodus of people enjoying their week off by the sea. There were stalls and stalls of shops in which we tried ice cream and peanut wraps, cooked quail eggs, and chicken spring rolls.
We went to see Bitan and walked along the boardwalks and bridge. Guess what? There was another market here. I think wherever people gather, a night market just magically pops up! We had our first shabu-shabu and bubble tea in Taiwan there.
We spent our first week in Taipei before visiting Kaohsiung City. From there, we went to breathe in the deliciously salty fresh air in Taitung. It's kind of like the Hamptons for New Yorkers. Did we mention we took the high-speed rail? It was really fun to ride and watch the countryside zoom by. We saw lots of rice paddy fields, rocky beaches, and small towns this way. Plus, you can buy bentos from the train station to eat on board.
Speaking of bentos, I was fascinated to see how much Japanese influence was in Taiwan. The food courts with their wax food representations serving tonkatsu, udon, and other delicacies. Fruits being beautifully packaged and imported from Japan. The apartments with wooden sliding doors. Not to mention all the Japanese restaurants serving sushi and shabu-shabu. I didn't know hot pot was so popular here! Howard and I also had our first conveyor-belt all-you-can-eat sushi. They have them everywhere, even in food courts!
The food in Taitung was so delicious. We had the second best wintermelon tea (Howard's mom version takes first place). We ate lots of noodles. We lined up for buns (twice)! I had the best scallion pancake ever (I still crave that on a weekly basis) that was stuffed with egg, onion, and basil. We were driven along the coast and even stopped by some tidal pools to spot the little fish, snake-like creatures, and crabs.
My personal favourite was Din Tai Fung - I know, how predictable - but the food there was really good! Their hot-and-sour soup has moved to the top of my list. Their beef noodle soup takes second place. And their dumplings with the intricately folded and translucent skin, you really can't just have one. They're addictive. We actually went twice, once during our first week in Taipei and then on our last night at the end of our trip.
We also really enjoyed World Soybean Milk Magnate for some traditional breakfast food. Soy milk, deep-fried dough sticks, sticky rice, sponge cake, scallion pancakes - I know, nothing colourful or healthy about this start to the day!
The great thing about all of the Japanese influences were shops like Uniqlo (in which I stocked up on a year's worth of clothes), Muji, and even bakeries that don't require me to go to Paris or Japan. We had macarons and madelines from pâtisserie Sadaharu AOKI paris!
If I thought Hong Kong had a lot of bakeries, there were even more in Taiwan. My absolute favourite one is Wu Pao Chun (which his aunt lived so conveniently close to). For souvenirs, we brought back boxes of their tasty pineapple cakes for our relatives in Toronto. We tried their award-winning rose-lychee bread, lemon cake, bread with corn kernels, bread with bacon, croissant, baguette with condensed milk, and a bunch of other savoury artisan buns. Yes, lots of baked goods. I had to gorge on it, as I wasn't going to get it fresh again for a very long time.
In Taipei, we stayed with relatives, but splurged on a hotel in Kaohsiung City. We highly recommend Hotel Dùa if you're in the area. The rooms were clean and the bathroom was frankly more luxurious than the one I have at home. Howard's favourite part was the daily breakfast that was included with our stay. It was located on the top floor, with a patio and view of the city. There was a great selection of beverages (we kept mixing the juices with the yogurt drinks), salads, fruits, bread, and even savoury food and sushi rolls made fresh by the kitchen. There were traditional Chinese items like congee, bamboo shoots, and soup. What you won't find it a waffle or pancake station!
Being the last leg of trip, Taiwan felt like a mix between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City. Taiwan had built up a subway station and it was still being worked upon, the transit was already years ahead of Toronto. But there were still a large part of the population that used scooters. The food and fruits were on par, with restaurants garnering Michelin stars and attracting chefs like Joël Robuchon. Hong Kong had the British influence, Ho Chi Minh with the French, and Taiwan with the Japanese. I liked that we could see the history everywhere we walked. There's so much to do in Asia and we did love that it truly felt like the cities never slept.

I did start to pick up some Mandarin. Mostly "eat" and "eat more" and "when are you guys having kids?" Sigh!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Ho Chi Minh City 2016

When we were planning our big three-weeks trip to Asia, I knew we had to make a stop in Vietnam. My dad happened to be taking a holiday there and the timing was perfect. When else would I get to see my dad's country of birth with him? Just like Hong Kong, I managed to squeeze in four days into our itinerary. Granted, the first and last days are mostly devoted to travel, we still got to see a bit.
Flying from Hong Kong to Vietnam, we had to take a bus to the Vietnam Airline plane on the tarmac. I don't know why, but I felt like I was in the movie, Speed. You know that scene when they're at the airport? Minus the stress of course. There we were all holding on to the rails and our carry-on items as the bus drove, and we got off to walk up the stairs to the plane. The airline hostesses all wore turquoise áo dài and to my surprise, we were also served dinner, I'm starting to feel spoiled by the airlines here compared to the ones in North America!
However, the airport in Ho Chi Minh City is crazy busy. Our plane circled for hours before it was finally given the go ahead to land. We also departed via bus to go to the terminal. But we found going through all the checkpoints very smooth. Tip, make sure you have all the right documentations! You need a visa to enter Vietnam and we saw lots of travelers waiting at the Visa office, stuck and not granted access to the country.
Since it was also days before New Years, lots of people were coming home. When we walked out of the baggage claim, the noise, heat, and crowd that hit us was insane! There were so many people waiting outside, I felt a little panic that I wouldn't be able to spot my dad because our flight was delayed, but we had pre-arranged to meet at a numbered column. The drive out of the airport and into the city was fascinating. There were so many people out and about. It feels like everyone is always on the go in the city. There were scooters everywhere, bikes, cars. We were quickly surrounded by scooters on the road and crawled in traffic to my uncle's home. Not to give it a scary description, but it felt like those zombie movies where you can get engulfed by the sheer number of people on the roads. We saw lots of disregards for traffic lights and road signs. We heard horns go off every minute. But hey, you never have to really stop, so you are on the go all the time! We got used to it after and when we left, it felt regular driving was so slow.
After settling in a bit, my dad and his brother took us out for dinner. We requested pho even though it was 30°C outside and most restaurants are outdoors. Well, we sweated through that first meal and I was so excited to be eating food in Vietnam! My dad ordered us all coconut water - mainly because there isn't much of a cost difference from ordering plain water and coconut water is cleaner/safer. The tap water here isn't drinkable like back in Canada. The coconut water came in the coconut! It was so cute and refreshing. The accompanying dish that comes with pho here are generous with limes, greens, sprouts, and pepper - something that Vietnamese restaurants are quite stingy about here in Canada.
Some of my favourite pho meals were ones we had on the streets in Ho Chi Minh City. Prepared right in front of me, they are quick, efficient, and filling meals. My favourite one was a Northern style broth that packed a bit of heat in it. We would clean our cutlery with lime wedges or wipes that we had bought and packed. Bringing your own sanitary wipes and napkins and toilet paper is probably the best tip one can give you when going to Asia. Always be prepared! And don't forget to stay hydrated with coconut water or juices, it is hot and humid even in February.
Since it was close to New Years Eve, a lot of parks, boardwalks, and streets are transformed into gardens and markets. At night, we would walk around to admire all the flowers and plants, basically a garden show where you can purchase things from exotic orchids to large lucky trees. I'm was pretty baffled as to how people carried these heavy potted plants back home - especially when more people own scooters than cars or trucks. Although, we did see someone carry a refrigerator on the back of their scooter. I went to my first night market ever and you can pretty much buy anything from food to home decor.
But the sights are beautiful. Twinkling fairy lights and flowers make for a wonderful holiday. They go all in here with the decorations. Everything looks so pretty and dreamy. Thanks to the climate, it is truly patio weather here and their restaurant and bar patios are amazing. I think that sales of string lights must be very strong here!
The city itself is growing. There's not a lot of skyscrapers here, so the tallest one offers the tourist attraction of going up to see the view. Most of the buildings are low, close together and sometimes narrow (which reminded me of photos of Holland). This is a high density city where any bit of space is used. We saw families eating dinner right outside their homes on the street. Scooters are parked everywhere and hop right onto the sidewalk before going up a small plank going inside the house.

My dad took Howard and I on a tour to the countryside where we got to see the more rural lifestyle. The rest stops by the roads consisted of small refreshment shops and rows and rows of hammocks. The temples here are large and full of blooming flowers and gigantic statues of Buddhas. We took a boat on the Mekong River. Saw lots of livestock running around. Tasted some coconut taffy, harvested honey, and fresh fruits. Howard even held a python!!!
In terms of other tourist spots, my dad also took us to see the Saigon central post office where he used to have to travel to just to make an international call. Those phone booths now house ATM machines. We saw the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and did a quick in-and-out of the Ben Thanh Market which was stifling hot. We toured the Independence Palace and War Remnants Museum which made me feel sick after reading the history and looking at the photographs. I felt this sadness and anger at how terrible humans can be towards each other. I ended up with a headache and didn't feel up to visiting the other rooms in the museum.

Okay, I also need to talk about the fruit here. Basically, it's amazing! I never had fruit that fresh, juicy, and delicious before. First of all, I love pomelos, but now that I had the ones in Vietnam, I can't believe how much better they are than the ones we get in Toronto. There's a vibrancy to it and I wanted to keep eating them, plus they can actually quench your thirst. The mangoes were incredibly sweet. I could go on and on. The jackfruit, starfruits, pineapples, passionfruit, and even apples. I really miss the fruit and food here, why oh why can't these make it to North America? I don't know anything about the import or export business, but there are surely farmers at home want to grow things for taste.
Everywhere in the city, you see the people hustling. There's a corner on the sidewalk? Someone is there making snacks or meals to go so when traffic is slow they might get some hungry scooter drivers coming by. There's a flower market happening? The sidewalks are filled with people with something as simple as a cloth with trinkets on top to sell. A burner and basket of ingredients becomes a place to buy street food. I'm not going to talk about my trip without mentioning how poor people here can be. The currency here is completely off-kilter. Fifty Canadian dollars is roughly eighty-five thousand Vietnamese Dong. We were carrying around a million Vietnamese Dong for our four days and couldn't even spend it all. We had delicious meals that included a beverage for the three of us that cost about $5 Canadian. A taxi from the city to my uncle's home was $7 Canadian - unheard of if I were to take the taxi from downtown Toronto to the suburbs. Our full-day tour to the countryside cost less than $10 each and it included the bus ride, the boat rides, a served lunch, and the tour guide. I was trying to figure out how the cost broke down so that everyone got a decent piece. I couldn't. Wouldn't gas alone take a huge chunk of that? My dad would try to help compensate by handing out large tips, but still we had to be weary to not draw attention to ourselves. We are by no means well-off in Canada, but coming here puts things in perspectives. We would walk around and see shop signs selling things that were in the multi-millions. It was an alarming and unsettling things to see.
Now that we've been home for a couple of months, I can truly say that visiting Vietnam was my favourite and most memorable. Hong Kong and Taiwan were also eye-opening, but not as different from the busy cities in North America. I am grateful I had the chance to be there with my dad, who became a handy translator and tour guide!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Hong Kong 2016

Friends! I did it!! We decided to take the plunge and do a big Asia trip this year. We meant to go two years ago, but a lot of things came up and I was really, really scared about the flight. I mean, I still was, but I survived it. And that probably means I'm stronger for it. Right? If you're wondering, the flight from Toronto to Hong Kong is about 15-16 hours depending on lots of sciency things that I can't explain. That is a long time to be stuck in a vehicle with little arm and leg space. That is a long time to travel in economy (because have you seen the prices for any of the seat upgrades? They're insane). We decided to fly Cathay Pacific and collected a lot of Asia Miles - which means we might be able to actually upgrade our seats next time (that's if I can stomach another long flight).
Obviously there aren't any perks flying economy, but compared to Air Canada, we were allowed to bring two suitcases each at no extra cost (not that we needed four suitcases for three weeks). You line up to check in your luggage with everyone else. You wait in a long, snake-like line to board. You fight for overhead space for your carry on (we did see a heated argument between some people sitting in front of us which didn't help with my calming my nerves).
But the service is lovely on this airline. We were handed napkins and a menu of the in-flight meals. The individual screens were loaded with movies, television shows, games, and even a camera under the airplane so you can watch the city twinkle beneath you during take off. Pillows, blankets, and headphones are given to everyone. The facilities are kept clean. And there are snacks and beverages hat you can ask for anytime during the flight. Fruits, instant noodles, and even ice cream! Hey, I can get excited about that. You can tell I'm not a frequent flyer.
Still, the flight was long and it's really difficult to sleep when your bum is getting numb. I watched a bunch of movies and tried to nap as much as I could between the served meals (we had congee for breakfast on the plane! What!). It was fantastic to finally land and see my aunt and uncle waiting to pick us up bright and early.
After dropping our things and freshening up, we went downstairs for breakfast. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. The food is made right at the door for those who want to grab a quick take out on their way to work. We got in to sit down on the stools and order sticky rice (chi fan), fried dumplings, and sweet soy milk. Sigh, we rarely get this in Toronto because there are so few places that make it well. The food is so good that I don't mind the cracked plastic bowls and the feeling of a matte film over the utensils. Or the fact that the sticky rice was made wrapped in a thin plastic bag. We're definitely not in Canada anymore.
I'm incredibly weary of cleanliness because of my sensitive stomach, but I felt that I had to ignore it all or I'd miss out on some great eats. We got rice noodle rolls (chee cheong fun), another favourite breakfast item of mine, from a street vendor that sold mini bouquets. I watched with fascination behind the glass window as the vendor pulled out the noodles onto a piece of paper and then topped it with black sweet sauce and chili sauce with sprinkles of sesame. Two wooden sticks get skewered in and breakfast is served. Um, it was ridiculously good as the sign of a good rice noodle roll is how smooth and silky it is. (We also did end up buying bouquets from him before we went to pay our respects to our ancestors.)
If you've never been to Hong Kong or haven't been back since you were an infant (like me), here are some of the things you'll notice right off the bat. The buildings are tall. And there are lots of them. If you thought New York City had lots of skyscrapers, imagine double, triple, or quadruple that. Apartments are clustered close together and you wonder in astonishment what happens during a fire drill or how long those elevator waits must be or if anyone ever tackles the stairs. Stores and restaurants aren't always on street level. You might have to walk up a few staircases and follow signs and arrows before you find the place.
It's also very hilly there - think San Francisco. There are lots and lots of high-end malls that are connected by the subways or high walks - think Las Vegas. You can actually manage to go an entire day under awnings and weaving in malls and subways, which is pretty handy when it's raining. If you go during winter, it is cold. Apartments here aren't insulated, nor do they have heaters. Instead, there's a bone chilling cold that feels damp, a type of shiver that we don't feel in Toronto. The subway system is so great, clean, clear on directions, and well thought out. There are lines on the floor for us to line up where the train's door will stop. There are designated seats that people actually respect (unlike Toronto where commuters rudely take priority seating). And best of all, there is the Octopus card that works for transportation and in stores!
But it's also a place mixed with new and old. I didn't expect to see construction still help up by bamboo. Or expensive shops next to dives and hold-in-the-wall places. You can find the latest fashion here in boutiques or crevices (where you didn't think a store would fit) crammed with an assortment of items for less than a dollar. It's really baffling and amazing at the same time. And there are so many shops. How does one ever know where to even start?
There are so many alleys and streets where you could turn a corner and marvel at hundred-year-old trees incorporated into the landscape. Or you end up on a road where every store sells the exact same herbs or dried seafood. It's no wonder there isn't a need for large supermarkets, there's food vendors everywhere selling fruits, vegetables, protein, and snacks. Everyone is hustling and bustling, I can see why visitors to Canada find the pace slower.
We didn't stay long in Hong Kong, just four days in which the first I spent nursing some bad jet lag. I was running on adrenaline, but after lunch I really wanted to lie down and sleep. I lost my appetite and had a crushing headache. Luckily, I didn't get sick even though it felt like I was getting every flu symptom and was having trouble staying warm. I just had to remedy this by doing some retail therapy and buying some sweaters, extra layers, and a hoodie. Gawd I love Uniqlo. I even ended up buying a hot water bottle (no more cold feet!), that's when I knew I was finally old.
I had jotted down some rough plans for our four days. To climb Victoria Peak for the view and to walk by Victoria Harbour to check out the skyline by the water. But thanks to the fog and drizzly weather, we didn't do any of those. We stayed near Causeway Bay and Central, dragged my aunt and uncle out so they could show us around the city they grew up in. I couldn't even tell you where we've been, we just followed them around, walking everywhere and stopping for snacks where we saw lineups.
Howard and I both wore our Fitbits during this trip and logged in over 15,000-20,000 steps a day. The nights were spent cozy on a couch (hah, no night life for us) as we rested up for the next day of walking. What will also amaze me is that space is never an issue. My aunt has a breakfast nook in her apartment, not even a dining room, but the ten of us crammed into that space and we had hot pot like it was no big deal. And it wasn't. But here I am in Toronto struggling to invite any more than four friends over because our dining table doesn't comfortably fit more than four. The kitchen there is the size of a small powder room or a closet, but everything fits (gah, guess I'm not allowed to complain about my kitchen space). There may be three bedrooms and two washrooms, but every room is efficiently filled to the brim with stuff.
Eating out is the same. We share tables with strangers, sit with our backs against each other and keep our eyes on the best dishes coming out of the kitchens. We couldn't visit Hong Kong without having dim sum. To my surprise, my aunt and uncle took us to a traditional tea house where tea is served in bowls. I had the best egg custard bun there, I probably could have gobbled all three but wouldn't be able to live up the scolding I would get from my family.
We also couldn't stop in Hong Kong and not have egg waffles (gai daan jai). These are my favourite childhood snacks and lately there's been a resurgent of them in Toronto. To my delight, shops in Toronto now incorporate other ingredients like pork floss and seaweed, sausage and seaweed, cookies and cream, chocolate, matcha, red bean, cheese, coconut, and so on. And even pairing them with soft serve ice cream. I'm pretty tempted to open a shop of my own ... if only I could get the egg waffle maker here.
Finally, during the various legs of our trip, we stopped at the Hong Kong airport three times and have yet to fully explore it. This place was huge and the food offerings are amazing. There's restaurants and food courts with so many different types of food, each with their own fan base. Some of the lunches and dinners we had at the airport while waiting for our flights were even better than ones out in the city. Aside from the food, the service and cleanliness at this airport was top notch. The free WiFi must be hella strong because there are so many people on their mobile devices here. There are prayer rooms and breastfeeding rooms. Overall, we found Hong Kong to be friendly to new parents and respectful to people with various beliefs. Spots where you can fill your water bottles and lots of retail shops to browse. Frankly, you can't be bored waiting here!

Oh, and if you love bakeries, this is your city! There are bakeries on every corner, in every subway stop, and on every street. Feel like a sweet or savoury bun? You got it. Need a pick me up or a special dessert for a celebration? It's right there. It was simply impossible for us to sample every bakery, but I would like to see somebody try!

Okay, our next leg of the trip was to Vietnam, stay tuned!
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