An Asian (and Epicurean) Odyssey

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Apr 1st, 2018, 09:56 AM
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An Asian (and Epicurean) Odyssey

Prelude
The genesis for this (largely epicurean) odyssey lies entirely with our talented high school-aged DD, a violinist who successfully auditioned for this year’s international schools honor orchestra. The competition is fierce; more than 500 students vie for 150 chairs. Each year the event rotates between European, Asian, and Middle Eastern schools for the concert location. We have been to Doha and to Luxembourg for previous performances; this year the host was the Singapore American School.

Only once DD received the happy news could the flurry of travel planning commence, naturally. At first the trip was to be only Singapore. Then friends in Seoul and in Tokyo messaged, “Our guest room is open—we’d love to see you!” DH muttered something about “the office,” but suggested I should carry on to visit our friends since, after all, we would be practically next door. DH is wise like that.

What began as just a few days in Singapore evolved into a total of 16 spectacular sightseeing days, with weather ranging from 32C in Singapore to 0C (and snow) in Seoul to 22C weather in Japan. (Packing for such an adventure is not for mere mortals, I must write.) And…cherry blossoms! In one of several serendipitous moments on this holiday, Tokyo’s cherry blossoms were near peak! But more on the Ohanami and everything else later…

Statistics and Logistics
According to SkyTrax I flew through or otherwise spent time in three of the “best” airports in the world: Singapore Changi; Incheon International; and Narita International. I really can not speak much to NRT because the absurdity of the JR office is probably beyond their control (inbound); and I checked in with just enough time to board my flight on the outbound. ICN’s Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 could be separate airports, but for the most part my transit was pleasant, with much beyond shopping to keep one’s brain engaged and one’s tummy satisfied. SIN knows how to treat transit passengers who aren’t certain what time it is or what country they are in. Or maybe it was that since everything was in English so I did not feel so lost in translation.

No mention was made of Dubai International on this list, and rightly so. I did survive my outbound layover in Terminal Purgatory between the hours of 2300 and 0130 and its sea of humanity either sleeping against the walls or pacing like bewildered insomniacs, so take that for what you will. My attempt for respite at the “Food Court” was mostly an exercise in sadness: McDonald’s to the right, “A Taste of India” to the left. Warm Naan and a plastic cup of tamarind chutney, though, pulled me through this darkest hour of my layover. The inbound 3 hours at DXB was a step improved?, I suppose. Terminal Shopping Mall at least kept me busy, and my beloved “Paul” patisserie came through with a chocolate raspberry tarte and gratis people watching.

Carriers
Emirates (A380 and Boeing 777). Exceptional service in Economy; I can only wonder about the service afforded the folks who pay $7,000 for their First Class Suite ticket. Worth-eating meals. 3,000 channels of entertainment and large lavatories you actually don’t mind using. No falcons on either flight to/from Dubai, though. Major disappointment.

Korean Air (A380 and Boeing 777). As with Emirates, exceptional customer service. Outstanding-by-airline-standards meals, too.

Jin Air. KAL’s budget carrier for the two hour skip from ICN to NRT. Hilarious 15kg baggage limit. Impossibly thin cabin crew. Good snacks like the kind one finds in Asian 7-Eleven’s.

So, so much could have gone wrong with the logistics. DD departed three days before we to sightsee before rehearsals began; and DH and I flew separately because he timed his return with DD. I alone had eight flight segments across two separate tickets (VIE-SIN-VIE and SIN-ICN-NRT-SIN), the combination of which is the perfect algorithm for disaster. Yet, nothing at all went awry. Only twice did I even have a passenger seated next to me! I fear I have used all of my good flight chits and am now worried that my standards for flying have been set too high, but thankfully I have an upcoming pond-hop on Delta back to the US in three weeks to readjust my altitude. Pun intended.

Staying Connected
TEP Wireless. The device arrived at my Austrian home two days before travel, and included an addressed envelope for return after my trip. Flawless wireless from the moment I landed in Singapore, and all throughout Seoul and Japan.

Accommodations
Singapore. Hotel Vagabond. Top marks overall; we were upgraded to a terrace suite, and the breeze at night through the open doors felt exotic; until the humidity crept in, that is, and when one of us would wake to shut the doors tightly and turn up the AC. Their guest-only complimentary cocktail and small plate hour each afternoon exceeded expectations: savory dumplings; a not-the-usual cheese board; perfect-portion tiny salads; and chilled wines to take the edge off of a 32C sightseeing day.

Seoul. Stayed with friends. No complaints, of course. Though, their flat had heated floors that turned the guest room into an easy-bake oven; the key to escaping desiccation each night was to open the window completely, even on the coldest of nights (of which we had numerous) to balance the heat.

Tokyo. Stayed with friends on the 19th floor of their high-rise overlooking Tokyo Bay. Obviously, nothing to complain about.

Singapore Airport. Seven hours in a pod-like hotel, The Haven, between return flights (2350 arrival and 1025 departure). Extraordinarily clean; rain showers; and a cheery little English breakfast of sausage, beans, and toast to inspire me for the final two flights toward home.

In-flight Movies Watched
Victoria and Abdul.
A Passage to India.
The Last Recipe.
Wonder Woman
The Sound of Music. Because I have seen this movie so many, many, many times, I turned it on for white noise while I was sleeping. I fell asleep just after Maria introduced herself to the Butler and then awoke during the end credits. So, technically, I probably played the movie in my subconscious.

Photos snapped: 1592

Kilometers walked: 151

More to follow.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 10:52 AM
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Sounds like a whirlwind visit sprinkled with several highlights. Looking forward to more.
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Apr 1st, 2018, 11:49 AM
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Great start! Looking forward to more.
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Apr 3rd, 2018, 06:00 AM
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Singapore. Let the Eating Begin!

Sixteen hours after departing stuck-in-winter’s-grasp Austria, the heat of Singapore greeted me warmly (pun intended), and I was ever so glad that I had worn linen trousers for the flight. Our hotel was an easy and humid half-kilometer from an MRT station, and in good order I was resting in the air-conditioned reception of Hotel Vagabond, a glass of lime juice (Singapore’s magic elixir) in my hand while the clerk was cheerily upgrading us to a terrace suite for no apparent reason at all.

In the room I threw open the colonial-shuttered doors to said terrace, humidity be damned, and sat on the chaise; moments later a couple of Javan mynah birds dropped in on the nearby (lime?) tree and studied on me as I studied on them, each time flitting off whenever I would reach for my camera. The game continued for a bit, but soon it was time for me to meet DH (he was a couple of hours behind me in travel). On my way to the MRT station to fetch him I detoured through a little market (“Buddha Jump Over the Wall” soup spices and white curry paste called to me; the canned “sea asparagus,” not so much) and through my first hawker center, mesmerized by the signs for “Pigs Organ Soup” and the “Halal/Non-Halal” Tray Return stations. We just don’t have this sort of exotic in Vienna.

Once DH had showered and donned lighter clothing we set out to explore our hotel neighborhood and to find some dinner. The streets were lively (“Look Right!”) and the buildings vibrant with color; cyclists coming and going in every direction; and Singaporeans schlumpfing along in their flip-flops (OMGosh do I despise flip-flops outside of beaches and public showers!) In preparing for the Singapore part of the holiday I had absorbed every possible written word on “what to eat,” down to the insipid listicles that wannabe travel bloggers write, and had created a Google Map of places at which we could indulge. Sungei Road Laksa stall was nearest the hotel and was to where we walked only to discover, or forgot to remember, that it was closed on Wednesdays. Ha!

But not to worry, delicious food is always within reach in Singapore. Steps away from Sungei was Mr. Ng’s shop, not at all on my map. Mr. Ng was a “normal Teochew family man” who wanted to make a better life for his family. He met a man from Shan Tou, China, a master of spices, who took him under his wing. Together they opened their noodle shop with its signature chili paste in 1981; and the rest, as the placard read, “is history.” All told we shared Teochew noodles on four occasions, two of which were at Mr. Ng’s shop, perched on plastic stools at a rickety sidewalk table alongside other hungry diners.

It was noodle love at first bite, I am not ashamed to write. Each dry bowl (the spectacular clean broth is served on the side) was brimming with minced pork, paper-thin abalone, shrimp, perfectly spongy fish balls and…those noodles! That chili paste! Smoky, spicy, and altogether the game changer in vaulting Mr. Ng above—dare I write?—Singapore's Michelin one-star Hawker, Hill Street’s Tai Hwa Pork Noodle dish.

Quite pleased with our choice for dinner, we succumbed to our jet lag, cruel mistress that she is, and tumbled into bed for the night.
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Apr 3rd, 2018, 06:47 AM
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Great start! And yes, those heated floors can roast you. On the other hand I once encountered air conditioned floors (!) in Serbia, and that was very feeble.
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Apr 5th, 2018, 03:22 AM
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Singapore. Chinatown, a Hindu Temple, and the Night Safari

What wonders a restful night can bestow upon a traveler. My eyes popped open at 0500 or so, and I luxuriated on the terrace with a coffee, scanning news highlights and posting enviable photos on social media to shivering friends in Vienna. The hotel offered a complimentary breakfast we enjoyed on just this first morning of yogurt, fruit, and the horribly dry national toast with strawberry jam, though on the following morning I would beg forgiveness for berating the humble bread when the goodness of Kaya toast touched my lips.

Our morning walk to the MRT station toward Chinatown took us past large signs announcing, “200 km of sheltered walkways by 2018 so we can walk in comfort.” It seems even Singaporeans don’t like their equatorial heat and humidity! Once in the MRT station I laughed aloud at the sign which listed prohibited items and their associated fines: $500 SGD for eating and drinking; $5000 SGD for carrying flammable goods; and so forth. Possessing Durian, though, incurred no fine. You. Just. Don't.

Here in Vienna the buses and U-Bahn have a droning announcement that translates to, “Attention. Other persons may need the seat not less.” But riding along with us on the MRT were the cartoon character signs for GiveWayGlenda (“Giving Way Makes Your Day”); MoveInMartin (“Move in to Fit In”) and their cartoon peers extolling the virtues of public transit etiquette. More entertaining to be sure, but at least we can pop a Doublemint stick in our mouth when we’d like.

Yes, yes, the cheap tchotchke is front and center in Chinatown, but so is all the Klimt-junk here in Vienna. If one takes the time to admire the paper lanterns swaying in the ever-so-slight breeze against a backdrop of colorful shophouses and blue skies, however, a different Chinatown emerges. Somewhere in my travel research I had also uncovered a guide to identifying the architectural styles of the shophouses and that activity combined with our general ramble up and down streets and in and out of stores; skimming menus for amusing translations (“Bamboo Reported Safety” was our favorite) and raising eyebrows and camera lens at the dried-lizards-on-a-stick and other “medicines” for sale at Chinese apothecaries filled the better part of the morning.

We reached the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple while a service was underway, though visitors were still permitted inside. The temple was crowded and so did not feel terribly peaceful, but in general everyone seemed respectful of one another. My full-frame snaps of the interior don’t tell the story nearly as beautifully as my close-ups of the walls and their numbered Buddhas, or the perfectly arranged meter-high orchid plants positioned just so against the backdrop of the gilded entrance hall. Still, visiting was a highlight of our tour through Chinatown.

Leaving the temple we paused for Sweet Corn Ice Cream (I though it an interesting taste; DH held a less favorable impression) on our way to the Chinatown Complex which we dubbed, “The Birthplace of Everything.” Seriously, if this market did not have what you needed, then you simply did not need that item! On the lower level was its wet market with helpful signs directing shoppers to the turtles and eels; eye-poppingly large lobsters the size of small house pets; bowls of artistically displayed Red Snapper heads certainly tempting the discerning Fish Head Curry chef; a Tofu Trader offering more preparations of bean curd than I ever considered possible; a “Flown Chilled Beef” stall (I’m guessing the beef was “flown” over from Australia?); and even…packaged American-style bacon.

Eventually we needed lunch. Tiong Bahru was more than a kilometer from where our steaming selves were standing, about 900 meters more than we felt like walking, so we looked around and spotted a tiny place where the noodles were being made fresh before our eyes, and were ushered to a table big enough for one. The portions mimicked the minimal seating but here the quality of our lunch trumped the quantity: Shrimp Bee Hoon for me; Crispy Pork Belly for DH. Our final tab included a charge for both the unrequested pickled vegetables (at least they tasted good) and for the odd strawberry-scented moist towel. When the entire meal of two entrees, one plate of handmade dumplings and two lime juice totals 16 SGD (~€10), who really concerns themselves with 0.75 SGD for veggies and a fruity hand towel? Likely some of the people visiting…

…the Sri Mariammam Hindu Temple, the oldest of its kind in Singapore. Entrance is without cost, but there is a 1SGD charge to take photos. Believe it or not, there were people who were sneaking photos without paying—in a house of worship. Though the sun’s angle prevented me from taking an iconic snap of the temple tower entrance, I do have crisp and bright, upclose snaps of the colorful interior filled with dieties and cows. Removing one’s shoes is also a requirement to enter the temple; and only those with socked feet (sorry, flip-flop wearers) could endure the firewalk through the courtyard to see the temple in its ornate, detailed, entirety.

The late-afternoon heat and probably some jet lag was weighing on us; and because the Night Safari was on the agenda we decided on a short break back at the hotel before grabbing dinner. We reached the hotel as their guest-only cocktail and small plate hour had begun, and settled in on the comfortable porch settee with hand-made prawn dumplings, tiny salads, and a crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. Other guests, we noted, seemed to be confusing "happy hour" with “dinner.” Each to their own, I suppose.

The Beach Road Scissor Cut Curry Rice dive, another Heritage Hawker, fourth-generation owned and managed by the same family since 1930 was our dinner destination. Absolutely no points would ever be awarded to its lone dish for presentation, but that red melamine plate nearly overflowing with (scissor-cut) chicken curry (more like a gravy) and cabbage (yes, cabbage!) atop a perfectly steamed mound of rice was a gastronomic epiphany. So, so good.

The Night Safari was quite enjoyable! Getting there and back, though, came down to having time, or having money. Our queue to board the little train that travels through the nighttime setting was not long at all; and we had the good luck of seeing nearly every nocturnal animal along the trail (DD reported the following night that the orchestra group saw every animal). The lighting is dreadful for photos; even so, after the tour we wandered down the Fishing Cat trail to spy on the big cats swatting at fish in the pond--too cute. The Bornean fire eaters show was just beginning as we came out of the trail, and we watched in wonder at people who light their kerosene-filled mouth ablaze for a living. All in all, a worthwhile part of our Singapore itinerary.

Finally, jet lag was to blame (isn't it always?) for our ordering a small and expensive nightcap (36SGD for two glasses of wine) to enjoy on the hotel terrace before wrapping up our long and entirely thrilling first full day in Singapore.
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Apr 5th, 2018, 07:17 AM
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Great reading. Sounds as if you were having a really good time in Singapore. I love being in Singapore and it will be 20 years of spending vacation time there at the end of this year. Boy, how it has grown.

Happy Travels!
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Apr 7th, 2018, 10:41 AM
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Singapore: A Five Meal Day and The Grand Finale

The clock was ticking on our final full day and there remained several “Heritage” and self-identified “Really Should Try to Eat” foods still to conquer. “Coffee Hut” at the Berseh Food Center was where our food day began. Two orders of “Kopi and Toast” were placed; surprisingly we were handed one of those paging devices and motioned to take a seat. Except, no one else was at the stall.

Not surprisingly our order was ready quickly. Just two bites into the toast, slathered perfectly with the Coffee Hut’s own Kaya spread, we understood. In fact, we requested a second order of Kaya Toast, we liked it that much. The Kaya spread was not at all what we were expecting, especially for DH, who despises coconut. The one jar we brought home will be empty soon, sadly.

No time to waste Instagramming coconut jam toast, though. From Coffee Hut we walked over to Kampong Glam, so named in Malay for kampong (village) and the gelam (paperbark tree) whose bark was used for shipbuilding. But first, a slow and careful wander through the abandoned Muslim Cemetery, the final resting place for Muslims who migrated from Kerala, India. We had arrived just after a morning rain shower, and the steam rising from the overgrown grass swirled around the markers, some tilted, some crumbling; and at that moment we felt like we were in a secret, exotic location yet we were steps away from busy Victoria Street.

We weren’t sure what to expect, but Kampong Glam impressed. The diversity of color on the shophouses was matched only by the sheer variety of stores and restaurants, several with little shrines filled with offerings of oranges; my camera was snapping in overtime! And then I spotted a Heritage Hawker I didn’t think we could fit in the schedule, Zam Zam Singapore, established in 1908 and the oldest Muslim restaurant in Singapore. Who cares that it was but 1000 in the morning, I walked in…and my face fell. All the tables were filled! Just at that moment, though, we were ushered upstairs and informed, “The air is cool up there.” The upstairs was about as busy as the tiny lower level, and the air was indeed cool. We beelined to two empty seats and before long had two lime juices in hand. Ahh. Knowing what the day held in store, and spying the ginormous size of even the “Small” Murtabak around us, we shared the finest plate of Mee Goreng to pass my taste buds. I have prepared the dish at home, or so I have thought; let me just write that the overlap between the two preparations is small.

Happy and not overstuffed, our walking approach to the Sultan Mosque was postcard-perfect: shuttered buildings and palm trees aligned symmetrically; and the Turkish patterns of the many restaurant’s outdoor benches like the inside of a kaleidoscope. And color, lots of color. The mosque was closed for prayer, but we have been inside mosques before and so walked over to the Malay Heritage Center, a well-spent hour learning about Malay culture and heritage.

Our route afterward took us along Arab Street and its stores of glorious batik and silk and other fabrics I know not what to do with. What I do know, however, is how to measure and so brought home enough silk to have someone with talent transform the fabric into new curtains for our master bedroom. (On a funny aside, DH is more than 2 meters in height. As we passed a fabric shop for gentleman’s suit fabrics the shopkeeper offered to him, “I make you a tall suit for a short price!”) I almost, almost, got caught up in a Persian rug shop; clearly my high from last spring’s rug-purchasing escapade in Marrakesh has not worn off. Had I not been thirsty and thus losing interest in the many handwoven rugs being unrolled before me there would have been another magic carpet in DH’s suitcase. Of course, I now regret my impatience.

Thankfully…time to eat! Our destination was the Michelin one-star Hawker, Tai Hwa Eating House. We queued with locals and fellow tourists, and in a half-hour or thereabouts were whisked through the soup line past the “Do Not Touch Me” sign (for the chef, we wondered?), collected our Teochew dry bowls and broth and had wedged in at a table for 8 with about 12 other people. As I wrote previously the noodles were quite good, really, but Mr. Ng’s noodles near our hotel had stolen my heart.

Uh oh! Rain clouds looked ominous as we were leaving our second lunch, but we made it to the Peranakan Museum before any steamy drops could further moisten us. I won’t write much here except that we found our visit to be an exceptionally good use of our waning hours in Singapore. Between reading the placards along the “Heritage Trails” in Chinatown, touring the Malay Heritage Center in Kampong Glam and the Peranakan Museum, our knowledge of and sense of appreciation for the extraordinary melting pot that is Singapore felt richer.

Guess what? Time to eat! The clock ticking, now counting down to the beginning of the light show at Gardens by the Bay meant that “dinner” needed to be quick. Chili crabs to the rescue! I can not recall the exact place we sat, but we did get to select our crustaceans from a tank, and presto! before we had finished our first glasses of lime juice the steamed and sauced crabs were delivered to the table. Yum. Yum. Yum. The crab meat was sweet and the sauce spicy; with a little steamed rice on the side, delicious.

We reached the Gardens moments before the light show began, and found a comfortable space on the opposite side of the lake for the show. I would have written that we thought we had the best seats in the house, but moments after the show began DD messaged from the skywalk, “Look where we are!” To the honors musicians go the spoils.

Not quite. Though DD and her musical peers had to return to their hotel, we adults decided to head to “Satay Street,” an almost unfair gastronomic trap: the aroma from the grills lure one closer; then, while you’re distracted by the sight of hundreds of satay sticks stacked and waiting to be charcoal-kissed, the “hustlers” (as DH called them) usher you to a table. Surrounded by tables and laughing people and heaps of sticks of grilled goodness, there is no more hope for escape. Two beers and the minimum order of 26 sticks (10 beef, 10 chicken, and 6 mini-lobster sized shrimps) were placed before we even realized what we had done. But, what fun! (For the record, we ate all 26 Satay sticks!) And that Satay sauce? Seems I’ve been doing that wrong, as well.

By this point in the evening? early morning? we were done, and hailed a taxi back to the hotel for the night, the plan being to sleep in to prepare for the long day ahead.

Except, no. My eyes opened with the birds and their dawn chorus, so I paid it forward and woke DH. We dozed lightly with our coffees on the terrace and then took ourselves to Mr. Ng’s noodle shop for one last breakfast. Such good noodles, and so much fun watching families laughing and eating together on this Saturday morning. But the clock was ticking even faster…

…to the Singapore Botanic Gardens on this final morning, and the ideal activity for the time remaining. I will not write that the air was cool and dry, but it being morning meant the gardens had not reached max humidity and were pleasant to stroll through. The Orchid Garden was a treat even with the crowds; but the Ginger Garden was a little disappointing because many of the plants were not blooming. Still, as with the Peranakan Museum we were pleased the gardens had been part of our itinerary.

Now there remained not enough time for Tian Tian Chicken. I know, I know. We traveled all the way to Singapore and did not even sample a signature dish; as it turned out, this would be the beginning of a trend for the remainder of my Asian holiday. But what to do for lunch? The bus route from the gardens took us straight down Orchard Road, and from deep within the recess of the Singapore-food-research part of my brain I recalled a nondescript and top-rate basement Hawker Center serving “something” memorable enough to warrant queues by locals. I hadn’t made much note of it, given that Orchard Road was not on our itinerary, but I was approaching hangry. Desperate times call for desparate measures, so I jumped off the bus at the top of Shopping Mall Lane in search of a basement Hawker Center whose name I could not recall, serving a dish from a stall I could not remember, either. DH was not quick enough and had to transit on to the next stop to reconnect. Oops.

Two blocks later I recognized the Hawker Center sign from memory and darted down the stairs. Scanning the small space quickly I spied a queue at one stall, and one stall only. Success! DH caught up with me as I was placing two orders for Prawn Noodles from a Heritage Hawker. Yay to me! DH joked with me over our delicious, delicious lunch that while I can rarely remember to tell him when my wagon needs petrol, I can recall one food stall out of thousands from something I read on the Internet. I told him that it’s a gift, and the reason we have been happily married for so long.

But our romantic lunch could only last so long. I needed to shower; we both had to finish packing, and the driver would be waiting promptly at 1845. To the hotel we scurried. The suitcases were packed, and exactly on time we stepped into our hired car for the drive to the Singapore American School and the performance.

At the intermission of the fabulous three-hour concert we both changed from concert attire into travel attire; once the concert ended our driver, who had been chilling with the many other drivers waiting at the school, whisked us to the airport in time for our respective 0130 flights. DH connected with DD and fellow musicians and parents for their Vienna return flights while I boarded my six-hour onward connection to Seoul for the second leg of the adventure I have since dubbed, The Chopstick Diaries. Barely had the cabin doors on my flight been secured than did my eyes close, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 from earlier in the evening playing in my head and lulling me to sleep.
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Apr 7th, 2018, 10:56 AM
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Yummmm!
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Apr 7th, 2018, 12:11 PM
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What a culinary adventure! Thanks for bringing back some of the happy memories we've had of Singapore. Looking forward to your impressions of Seoul, a city we've not yet visited.
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Apr 8th, 2018, 08:46 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries: Seoul

Incheon International Airport’s new Terminal 2 opened in January of this year, in time for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is sleek and pretty and calm and soothing. What it is not, is near to Terminal 1, from where the express train to Seoul Station departs.

Meeting me in Terminal 1 was my friend from Japan, who accepted the invitation to join me in Seoul and had arrived the night before; we would then transit to Tokyo together after our Seoul city break. The friend I would be seeing in Seoul works part-time, so the more friends to sightsee with, the merrier, right? And that’s exactly how our four days in South Korea’s capital happened.

I messaged Japan Friend (JF) upon landing at 0830, telling her I needed to stop for some Won before catching the shuttle bus that runs between the two terminals. Retrieving Won was easy, once I located a machine that accepted International Bank Cards. But, what was that? A service fee? Sorry, Seoul, but charging me to withdraw my own money is not very welcoming, so I made a note to guestimate my cash spending to reduce the withdrawals necessary. As it turned out Seoul (and Tokyo) both accept plastic for even small purchases (€1,50 equivalent), so I could truly minimize cash withdrawals.

But I have digressed. Cash in hand, I boarded the shuttle for T2. Looking out the window I notice the bus driving further and further away from the airport. I called up Google Maps and discovered I was not jet-lagged; the two terminals are quite far apart! Fifteen minutes later we reached T1, where I connected with JF and we purchased our AREX (train) tickets to Seoul.

Not wanting to impose on Seoul Friend (SF) and her new job I decided to reserve a room at the same hotel as JF, a rather simple but upscale hotel in the middle of Insa-dong that worked out superbly. We arrived from the airport and were able to check in early, freshen up, then forage for a large snack before making the most of the afternoon ahead of us. JF said she was thrilled to go along with the Seoul itinerary I had drafted, so our first destination was the National Museum for its temporary art exhibits on Tigers, closing that day; the visiting pieces from The Hermitage; and the standing calligraphy exhibits plus whatever else struck our fancy.

I must write now about JF’s snack from the 7-Eleven. If you are not in the know, 7-Eleven is a Korean food mecca. I picked up a fresh made SPAM onigiri (be jealous, it tasted fantastic) and a package of grapes. JF purchased a wrapped package labeled, “Cheese Sandwich,” the picture showing a brown bread sandwich containing lettuce and cheese. But it was not a cheese sandwich; the package contained sandwich cheese—six slices! We laughed and laughed on our way to the Metro.

The National Museum of Korea was worth every minute of the two-plus hours we spent. The temporary exhibits were well done and held our attention, the Tigers a little more so than works from The Hermitage; the former showcasing the Asian King of Beasts to coincide with its representation as mascot of the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games. But the way in which the museum wove the history of Korea into the space left us feeling as if we had actually learned something.

From the museum we visited the War Memorial of Korea and viewed the tanks and airplanes on the grounds, though we did not visit the war memorial museum. While we were inspecting the inside of a tank we were asked by two older Korean men, once they confirmed we were American, if they could take their photo with us. They remarked that they were veterans and wanted a photo altogether by the tank. This would not be the last time on this holiday we engaged positively with older Korean persons.

By now the afternoon, and we, were waning; a SPAM and rice ball and some cheese slices only goes so far. In retrospect, though, I am entirely pleased with allowing as much time as I had for the National Museum, and don’t feel the visit to the war memorial was shortchanged.

I had not devoted as much research to Korean foods as I had to Singapore, mostly because my appreciation for Korean foods has little bounds. A copout, some might say, but I prefer to call it leaving serendipity to chance (you’ll read why later in the holiday). After a few moments to collect ourselves back at the hotel we set out for dinner in Insa-dong, where old meets new, and where girls in rented Hanbok are as popular as the Naked Singing Cowboy in Time Square, finding a little place that could be the Seoul equivalent of the Izakaya in Midnight Diner: Tokyo. We cozied up on two chairs facing the wall and pointed at the picture menu: made-to-order Jap Chae Dumplings; Fried Shrimp; and Galbi Dumplings. Total tab for the two of us? A mere 10.500 Won (€8). Epicurean happiness!

Would our sightseeing and dining good fortune continue (the “Cheese Sandwich” episode aside) we mused later that night, when checking the weather forecast and plotting the next day’s adventures…
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Apr 8th, 2018, 01:25 PM
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The cheese sandwich episode had me laughing. I too have had my encounters with poor English translations, all of it in East and Southeast Asia and almost always funny.
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Apr 8th, 2018, 01:37 PM
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I actually googled up every dish by name and every restaurant/eatery by name to see what the food look like, and what are the ingredients.
Great writing! Following along.
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Apr 10th, 2018, 09:42 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries Seoul: Certainly Not “Culturally Dull”

Winter was clinging to the breezy and cold Korean peninsula, so it was our parkas we donned for this sightseeing day. Compared to the attention-to-detail-to-a-fault of young Korean women (some might call it vanity) we felt woefully underdressed and certainly under K-cosmeticked; however, we were warm.

As neither of us had traveled to Seoul previously we kept the itinerary fairly predictable, starting with Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Kings who ruled Korea for more than 500 years. Our arrival at the palace was with perfect timing, too, just in time for the Changing of the Guards! Color, and pomp and circumstance (along with lots and lots of women in rented Hanbok) adding festivity to the history.

The palace complex excited me with its gracious and minimal structures sitting calmly amidst a background of skyscrapers, and the sun and sky made ideal light combinations for photos. Though the palace’s Royal Throne Room and Pavilion were but among the few spared from destruction during the time of Japanese occupation, the (€3,80 equivalent) informative booklet from the ticket booth was helpful in imagining the rest of the large complex, now recreated. At one point during our wandering I could not help but think of an ex-pat whose blog I had unearthed in my research, who described their six-day visit to the Seoul as, “culturally dull” and wondered if we were in the city s/he had described. Such an ungrateful person.

Leaving the palace we were lured by the aromas wafting out of a tiny, tiny restaurant of three tables and run by a mom and her son that looked as if it had just opened that day. We were not shown a menu but instead informed that the “best” dish was the Bibimbap. Two orders of Bibimbap were thus placed. Mom smiled. They were a great duo: Mom clearly loved to cook and Son clearly loved to engage with the diners; he chatted with us throughout the meal, peppering us with questions about America. In between answers we savored some incredible Bibimbap alongside what I have declared my favorite Kimchi of the Seoul visit, though this ranking would be tested the following evening. (On an aside, I was thinking, why were my greens much tastier in Asia than at home in Central Europe? The humble Bibb lettuce in Mr. Ng’s noodle bowls in Singapore was an awakening of crispy and crunchy and flavor; and the steamed spinach in my Bibimbap tasted as if it had only been plucked from the earth moments before. A great food mystery, I suppose.)

Warmed, and entirely happy with our lunch decision we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a representative Korean village retaining its design from the Joseon Dynasty and tucked within big and modern Seoul, with scant tourists (at least on our visit); signs urging tourists (likelier in the busy season) to respect the privacy of the homeowners; visitors in rented Hanbok posing here and there; and odd photoshoots with American models in sequined “Frosted Flakes” dresses. Perhaps it was the timing of our visit, but we found Bukchon much to our liking. Though flowers and trees were not quite in bloom, the streets were quiet and the setting made for beautiful filtered-light photos. The little galleries were not crowded; and we were encouraged to linger when we stopped at a tea house for a pause. We imagined we might have felt differently at another time of the year.

Leaving Bukchon we both agreed on the need for retail time in Insa-dong before dinner but quickly became distracted by the music and colors at the Joygesa Temple. This primary temple of Buddhism in Seoul was celebrating something that we could not quite discern, but with the music and the colorful lanterns and the happy people all around us we decided that we all the invitation we needed! The temple itself is worth visiting, even if you should find yourself in the near and there is no merriment.

Eventually we did find our way into Insa-dong. The busy streets of Seoul may be filled with over-the-top cute (for our daughters), but Insa-dong was filled with traditional artisans and items that would long outlive “cute.” Once again we were privileged to not be amongst crowds; the shops in Ssamziegil were empty and welcoming (perhaps not so to my pocketbook); and the owner of the calligraphy brush store at which the Queen herself once paid a visit was delighted to talk to us about brushes. Really, though Seoul may be a cosmopolitan big city, Insa-dong was altogether its own gem.

A brief stop at the hotel to drop packages was just the time needed for our frozen noses and toeses to warm, and for we to decide that wandering far for dinner was not an option. Thankfully around the corner from the hotel was a KFC; that is, a Korean Fried Chicken place, so we settled into a table and ordered a platter to share. The chicken was exceptionally good, with paper-thin crispy skin and tender chicken, though we would later relegate the meal to “Tourist Fare” status after the kindly, 87-year old Pek guided us to, “The Best” KFC the following day.

That story, however, is to be continued…
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Apr 10th, 2018, 10:20 AM
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I've really been enjoying your report. I was with you all through Singapore, and could visualize it all, having been there many times. I've not been to Korea, so this section is fascinating to me.

Keep it coming!
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Apr 11th, 2018, 12:54 AM
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Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments. I am glad you're enjoying the report as much as I am writing it. If only the lovely weather here in Vienna weren't compelling me to be outdoors, I might actually finish writing!

Guenmai, though we missed Candlenut, I did pick up a Peranakan cookbook, Nonya Heritage Kitchen and gave a recipe for White Curry Chicken a go: it was, not surprisingly, a huge hit with the family. The recipe was once on the menu at Candlenut, so I can pretend I have eaten there.
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Apr 11th, 2018, 04:28 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries Seoul: Suwon and a Michelin Bib Gourmand!

Suwon lies about an hour to the south of Seoul on one of the Metro lines and is home to the country's only walled city, the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO Heritage Site. I know, UNESCO designations aren’t always what they seem, but the designation in this regard was most deserved. The construction of the fortress was a remarkable scientific feat for its time (late 1700s during the Joseon Dynasty); and the 10 volumes of notes written after its construction proved invaluable when recreating structures following destruction during the Korean War.

Picture, if you can, what awaited us on this day. Suwon is home to around 1 million people; in the city lies the fortress, whose perimeter is a little more than 5 kilometers. The entirety of the fortress wall can be walked; we managed only about 3 kilometers not for lack of interest but rather the opposite: taking exceptional photos from the bastions; and wandering down the stairs to explore the traditional markets and neighborhoods and the old Haenggung Palace on the inside. At the south gate of the fortress lies a market; or rather, nine markets of more than 1300 stalls (!) selling everything from tools to kimchi fermentation pots for families of all sizes; pig heads neatly aligned in butcher cases; herbs and potions to cure everything that ails you; and the funny Citizen’s Marketselling “elderly women’s clothing.” Plus a dizzying array of Korean street food. It was wise that we did not sample the food, though.

We had been intrigued by a place on our map described as “Chicken Street” and at the closest point wandered down from the wall at “The Place Which Descends” (a sign referring to the stairs ) and best-guessed our way toward the street. Walking toward us was an elderly man, looking snappy in his pressed khakis and parka. This was Pek, who became our ad hoc tour guide, a charming 87 year-old man who not only walked us to "Chicken Street" in spite of his admission of drinking wine all morning and forgetting his English (which was still far superior to our Korean!), but also made certain he had taken us to what he deemed the “best” KFC in Suwon.

“Chicken Street,” it turned out, is where chicken restauranteurs of 40 years’ tradition ply their wares, vying for customers with variations in their spicy chicken sauce. It is the place to go in Suwon, and you know you are there when you spy the sculpture of a chicken and three eggs at the entrance to the street. The delectable aroma of fried chicken is a notable giveaway, as well. We walked in to Pek’s suggested place and were motioned to a table; for a weekday lunchtime the restaurant was crazy busy! Large groups, couples, families—everyone was eating fried chicken!

Observing the scene and the menu board, we thought we’d play it safe and order the “Half Plain, Half Spicy” chicken platter to share. While waiting for our food a bowl of what we called, “Fat Cheerios” was set before us along with the pickled vegetables. The “cheerios” were addictive in that snack-kind-of-way, whatever they were, and perhaps our downfall. The first “half” of our order arrived in good time, enough crunchy, nubby plain chicken to feed a Joseon army! Thinking that perhaps the waiter had not understood our finger-pointing at the menu we shrugged it off. But the waiter was indeed fluent in finger-pointing, for moments later he appeared with another feed-an-army size platter of the spicy chicken! To our credit we did not waste a single, spicy, lick-your-fingers bite of the chicken. The chicken we touted from the previous night did not hold a candle to Chicken Street chicken, just saying.

This slight overindulgence worked to our advantage, or at least that's our story. All morning long we had been battered by gusty winds which had intensified later in the day, making the return across the long side of the fortress a good workout, and the chicken being the fuel to make the return. Along the return we detoured past the palace and walked the grounds (most worthwhile) and rambled into and out of shops before catching our bus and then the train, our feet happy to rest after this 18.4 kilometer day.

Early evening was upon us when we reached the hotel in Seoul, but did the heaping lunch platters of KFC keep us from dinner? Of course not. But where to eat on this cold, cold--“Was that snow we smelled in the air?” evening? Why, a "Good Restaurant," naturally. Down a narrow passage from the hotel was a, “Good Restaurant,” according to the sign on the exterior. We peered into this little nondescript place and were quickly ushered to a table, surrounded by families, couples, and a rowdy room of Korean businessmen. Before we knew what was happening bowls of piping hot traditional Seollantang (ox bone soup) appeared before us, followed by the proprietor, with scissors and a basket of kimchi, which she personally cut for us. I don’t have to write how satisfying a hot bone broth with silky oxen meat and fresh noodles can be on a cold (and as we would discover shortly, snowy) night! Leaving the humble space we spotted a second sign near the cash stand. We had just dined, sans menu, at a Michelin Bib-Gourmand restaurant! A “Good Restaurant” indeed!

About that snow…
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Apr 13th, 2018, 04:01 AM
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The Chopstick Diaries: Sayonara, Seoul! Konichiwa, Japan!

So much for Spring. Light snow was falling as we finally caught up with my Seoul Friend for a tour of Noryangjin Fish Market, where one can select their dinner and then take it upstairs to be cooked. We, though, just came to ogle these National Geographic caliber creatures of the sea. Aside from some of the most delicious-looking seafood I have seen in such time (I live in landlocked Austria; the jumbo Karpfen swimming in the market tanks is just not the same), JF noticed that many of the stalls are run by women, unlike at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Girl Power.

Warmed by a package of fresh made red bean paste-filled fish cakes (in design only) from a street vendor we decided on some worthwhile wandering of Dongdaemun, one of Asia's largest shopping districts and where I picked up (quite) a few fun things for DD as the snow blew sideways at us. A Fashion Week event was underway, the models walking amongst us mortals (at least we think the Hello Kitty-robed dude was a model) and looking terribly frozen through their smiles and skimpy clothing. Lunch was at a place suggested by Seoul Friend, near one of Seoul’s old gates: steaming stone bowls of Bulgogi with crispy rice on the bottom! If you have never eaten this goodness, you really should.

JF and I bid farewell to Seoul Friend, and braving the weather headed back toward Insa-dong, the intention being to pack and take in the excitement of the street markets in Myeondong before our departure the following day. Walking back to the hotel, the snow falling a little more heavily, I snapped a lovely photo of the Bosingak Belfry amidst swirling flakes that is just about frame-worthy. The Belfry was during the Joseon times to mark time; the bell would ring 33 times at 4 AM to start the day; thankfully now it is only rung to celebrate the New Year's.

Taking the little break was ruinous to our dinner plans. The lure of Korean street food lost to, “Let’s get something close by so we won’t freeze.” Darn you, Mother Nature. Snow? On the first day of Spring? All is well that ends well, as the saying goes, and the menu at a nearby Indian/Pakistani restaurant was just the palate cleanser we needed for our departure to Japan the following day. Karahi Beef and its spices brought tears (of joy) to my eyes; JF reported equal happiness with her Paneer Curry. So, just as I left Singapore without lifting a chopstick of Chicken Rice to my lips, I would leave Seoul without sitting for Korean Barbeque. Two strikes in my “foodie” credentials passport. Would I redeem myself in Japan?

Of course, the morning of our departure day was non-parka warm and sunny! JF and I had just enough time for a lengthy walkabout of Changdeokgung Palace, one of the five main Joseon palaces and the one considered the most beautiful. We agreed; the palace buildings seem as if they came from nature rather than interrupted it; and if I had been a Joseon royal this is where I would be spending mytime. We specifically did not purchase tickets for the “Secret Garden” tour because the kind person at the ticket kassa told us, “The gardens are not pretty today.”

Now time was of the essence. A fast-paced walk to the hotel to collect our bags, and then the not-so-interesting hour ride to Incheon. JinAir only offers in-person, at-the-airport check-in so we duly obliged. I hoisted my 22.9kg Tumi onto the baggage belt and the JinAir groundcrew member smiled and said, “We only allow 15kg for checked baggage.” I just smiled in return and she moved the baggage along.

The quirky checked baggage limit aside, JinAir was a pleasant airline to fly; and if I had to hop back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul I would have little to grouse about. Though the plane was older (translation: no entertainment beyond the in-flight magazine), the seats were spacious and the legroom ample. The afternoon “snack” was a box with a Tuna Onigiri. The snack was delicious; the tuna-breath filled cabin air, perhaps not so much.

Konichiwa, Tokyo? JinAir doesn’t exactly rate a prime gate at Narita. We may actually have landed in Osaka and taxied to Narita, that is how long it felt we were moving along the runway. The JinAir flight crew was ready for the impatience and would periodically announce that we were “almost” at our gate. Kind of funny, really.

Finally, bags in hand we headed to the Japan Rail Office to collect my pre-purchased JREast Pass. Except the system failed. Regardless of whether one has pre-purchased a pass, one must still queue with all those who have not. So much for time saved. Nearly 45 minutes after we joined the queue did I receive my pass. JF messaged her DH that he should head to the market and collect some dinner for us, as it was nearing 2000 and neither she nor I were any longer in the mood to dine out.

JF’s DH came through spectacularly, with tempura and steamed edamame waiting for us. We feasted; I Instagrammed the view over Tokyo Bay from their 19thfloor apartment building; and then we called it a night.

Coming up, an old Edo village and Nepalese cuisine…
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Apr 13th, 2018, 05:19 AM
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Still enjoying this! Sounds like a return trip to SK is in order for the missing barbeque, lol - there is plenty to see beyond Seoul.
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Apr 13th, 2018, 08:53 AM
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I'm curious about your thoughts about Seoul in comparison to Tokyo. In my mind, there seems to be a lot of similarities. While I've visited South Korea, I haven't been to Seoul.
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