Thursday, 15 December 2011

Namche Bazaar to Tengboche

Had a bit of a shock when we paid our bill at Moonlight Lodge, turns out there's a marked inflation in hot water prices between Phakding and Namche. Better to have learnt that lesson earlier rather than later though - from now we decided to break into our Aquatabs water purification tablets, which continued to serve us very well for the rest of the trip.

'Garlic toast'
After a hearty breakfast, including James' garlic toast (yes, it really was just a few cloves of raw garlic smeared on marginally buttered toast), we headed off to our next destination, Tengboche. The morning saw probably the only cloud we would encounter for the rest of the trek, causing us to fumble for our cameras every time a teasing view of Everest was briefly unveiled at every turn.

Ama Dablam peeking out of the morning mist
Descending toward our lunch spot was a mixed blessing, as we knew we'd have to make up for all the lost altitude (and then some) later in the day. Seeing the zig-zagging path on the other side of the valley also brought a certain level of dread, but at least it would be no worse than the climb up to Namche the day before yesterday, we thought.

Crossing more bridges
At lunch we had our first food fail, a 'macaroni with tomato sauce' served by the slowest kitchen ever. This consisted of some sad looking pasta served with an alien, pinkish sauce which bore no resemblance to real tomatoes whatsoever. Even after a liberal dose of ketchup and chilli sauce, it was still barely palatable and we left Mark to force down most of it while we stuck to the other dishes.

Waiting for lunch
At least there was some amusement in the form two cute grey kittens, one of which was particularly fond of jumping on our guide (who did not share the kitten's affections).

What a cutie!
After lunch came the dreaded climb, and while it was fairly slow going we made good pace and even managed to pass another group, reaching Tengboche in 1.5 hours - and feeling a lot better than we did when we arrived at Namche!
Our first view of Everest from Namche
We checked out the famous monastery, though unfortunately as it was heading into winter there was only one monk on duty and no chanting to watch. The richly decorated prayer room was still very worthwhile to see though.
Heading into Tengboche monastary
The richly decorated insides
As we huddled around the fire waiting for dinnertime, we finally decided to be a bit more sociable and start chatting to our fellow travellers. There was a Dutch couple who had been pretty much staying at exactly the same places as us the entire way so far, and we discovered it was actually their first trip abroad and first trekking trip, ever. Nuts! There was also a big Singaporean group doing the walk, one of whom was a piano tuner. Apparently it's a lucrative trade in the small island nation, as pianos require tuning every 6 months due to the climate (usually it's a year), plus it's not hard to imagine the multitude of little Asian kids toiling away at the keyboard for hours on end...

Seems to be a given that if you look out the window anywhere, you get an awesome view
Tomorrow, another short-ish day and then off to Dingboche!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Phakding to Namche Bazaar

The morning portion of our second day of walking was fairly easy, but it was a completely different story after lunch - a constant slog up the hill for about two hours which had us seriously out of breath after each zig and zag. At least we were eventually finally rewarded with our first view of Everest, and when we saw the first signs saying 'Namche Bazaar' we breathed a sigh of relief.

Finally reached Namche Bazaar
Prematurely though, as it turned out there was yet another 130m of punishing climbing through the steep steps of the town before finally reaching our stop for the night - Moonlight Lodge. The last 50m were probably the hardest and even once we were in the hostel, even climbing two flights of stairs to get from the entrance to our rooms was nearly all too much.

Hard to get a better town view than this
Fortunately we were able to rest for the rest of the day and amused ourselves with a retro Monopoly set which was available in the common area.

The common area in Moonlight Lodge
The next morning we were all to happy to have a rest day, apart from a short trudge up the hill to visit the local museum, take some more photos of Everest, and a visit to the town proper which we pretty much ignored the day before in our efforts to just get the walking over and done with.

Shops in Namche
As promised, Namche has everything a trekker needs, from official North Face outlets (accordingly priced), to Irish Pubs, it was by far the most developed settlement we came across in the entire walk. Plenty of souvenir shops abounded as well, with the usual knitted animal hats and yak wool scarves. Prices varied greatly from store to store and we mostly refrained from purchasing anything. No doubt the find of the day were Snickers Crunchers, a favourite of James' and not commonly seen anymore elsewhere.

Probably one of the best things about the whole trek were the consistently amazing views we'd get from whatever place we were staying at, and usually from our rooms themselves too - something which definitely helped us get over the freezing cold temperatures!

The view from our room in the morning

Monday, 12 December 2011

Lukla to Phakding

The surprising thing about the beginning of our trek toward Everest Base Camp was that it was much easier than we were expecting. After mentally steeling ourselves for about two weeks of hard uphill slog, it certainly felt strange to be ambling leisurely downhill for a good hour once we had set off with our porter. In fact, we were so eager to head off our guide told us to slow down from time to time.

The scenery was the very embodiment of 'picturesque', with quaint stone huts, fields of vegetables and plenty of prayer slabs and wheels for that cultural touch. Much later on the walk we would find less and less of these, no doubt due to the fact that carrying huge heavy slabs of stone uphill probably lost appeal after a while, especially when the much lighter prayer flags probably sufficed just as well.

We crossed a lot of bridges on the first day, but these were sturdy steel affairs with plenty of support, so wasn't actually that scary. Festooned with rows and rows of colourful prayer flags, each bridge presented fantastic photo opportunities. The only off-putting thing was probably the well-trodden remains of yak poo between the bits of metal, but at least there weren't any fresh ones - unlike much of the rest of the trail.

After a mere two and a half hours of walking we were already at our destination for the night, Phakding. Given the numerous warnings about not going too high, too fast, it was probably best we didn't try to press on. Upon arriving at our hostel we were greeted by a mute yet highly exuberant guy who gave us a local hot orange drink called 'Tang' on the house, and took our lunch orders.

The highlight of the afternoon was discovering that our guide, Binod, had recently starred (well, featured as a backup dancer) in a Nepali folk music video. Luckily the hostel had a TV and we were able to witness him in action. I have no idea what the name of the song or singer was, but it was a bit like a Bollywood song in a Sound of Music setting - dancing in the grass, picking flowers, mountains in the background - awesome. 

After the sun went down we quickly discovered that the place to be was as close to the wood burning stove in the middle of the living area as possible, with the other travellers who had arrived during the day. Given the lack of entertainment we turned in for the night pretty early at around 8pm, which would become routine over the rest of the trek. Our rooms felt like fridges already and it was only the first night, so that was a bit of a worry - but at least once we got in our sleeping bags it was nice and toasty - we didn't even need the extra blankets they provided.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Kathmandu to Lukla

There are three things to know about the Kathmandu domestic airport terminal:
1) Security is tight
2) It's good to be female
3) Don't expect your flight to leave on time

1) Security

After being picked up at an ungodly hour from our hotel with our guide, we took the cramped and bumpy journey back to Kathmandu airport in the dark. This time, we were deposited at the much less impressive domestic terminal, where we queued in the cold with other bleary-eyed tourists for about half an hour until we were let into the building. There were a real mix of tourists, from obvious scenic flight-takers wearing impractical shoes and no luggage, to fellow trekkers like us, with guides and big packs ready to go.

Everything was fairly well-worn, and even the scales for weighing luggage weren't digital. That's why I was surprised we were herded through metal detectors and had our handcarry luggage put through a scanner just like any other airport, and doubly surprised when I realised I had forgotten to transfer not one, but two pocketknives into the check-in luggage... oops. Fortunately our guide Binod was able to rescue both from the confiscation pile and stuff it in our check-in bag, but lesson learnt - you can't sneak a knife onto a Kathmandu domestic flight!

2) Female preferential treatment

I suppose I can thank the Muslim population in Nepal for creating a need for separate security checking lines for females in all airports. I was able to jump ahead of the boys and go pretty much straight through, while they waited in the much longer queue of guys waiting to go through security. Of course, it's not much help when you're travelling with males, and the plane isn't ready to depart anyway, but still - a small victory for femalekind.

3) Departure time

Our flight was supposed to leave at 6am, but of course the sun wasn't even up yet so visibility was a bit of a problem - hence we had to sit around until sunrise before we could actually depart. Of course you would expect that it would be pretty easy for them to know what time the sun will rise every morning and schedule the flights accordingly, but I guess that's not how things work in Nepal...

The flight itself was quite similar to the one we took to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas when we were in the states, a small plane with about sixteen seats and full visibility of the cockpit. They even had an air hostess who gave out candy and cotton wool to stuff your ears with for the noise, pretty cool.

And there's one thing to know about Lukla airport:
1) It's really not that bad!

Often described as one of the scariest in the world, Lukla airport does indeed have a short, sloping runway - but given there are as many as a hundred flights a day during peak season, the pilots are pros. Apart from a slight bit of turbulence coming into the valley where we lost a foot or so and I had a bit of a 'whoa!' moment, the landing itself was smooth and all over very quickly - you almost don't have time to be scared. With only four 'parks' for the planes the whole operation is a well-oiled machine, with arriving passengers and luggage alike shunted off with speed, and departing passengers scooting onto the same plane within minutes to take off again back towards Kathmandu.

Once off the plane, we were off to have breakfast, hire a porter, and start walking toward Phakding, where we would stay for the first night of the trek.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Without the luxury of reliable access to internet and power, I wasn't able to keep this blog updated during our actual trip - so this is a retrospective account of our 18 days in Nepal, plus the consequent 10 days in Hong Kong.

Getting fleeced by a swarm of guys demanding exorbitant tips for touching your bag outside Kathmandu Airport wasn't a great start to our trip, nor a fantastic first impression of Nepal, but there you go, that's what happens sometimes when you visit developing countries. At least things could only improve from then on!

My first impressions of the city from the late night drive to Annapurna Hotel, our accommodation for the next two nights, was that it was a lot like India - but quieter. As expected, many roads were in pretty average condition, narrow and littered with ruts and potholes. Once we arrived we turned in quickly for the night. As we lay in bed I marvelled at the silence, despite the fact our window faced toward the street, a stark contrast to previous trips with city stays - particularly Delhi.

The next morning we didn't waste much time in signing up to a 16 day trek package offered by the travel agency referred by our hotel. We knew we would save money by organising more stuff manually ourselves, but frankly it was still relatively cheap and we didn't really want to waste time haggling with half a dozen places to get what we knew we wanted anyway.

The original plan was to fly to Lukla, do the Everest Base Camp walk, and then go through Chola Pass to check out the glacial lakes at Gokyo before rejoining the main track - thus a loop instead of one way in/out - but in the end we got lazy and got back a bit early, though I'll get to that a bit later.

With our trek and flight tickets to Lukla booked, we decided to take some time to sightsee around the city. After completely failing to find a supposed shopping area pointed out to us on a map, we gave up and took a taxi to Durbar Square, the plazas around the old royal palace buildings, and a UNESCO site!

Upon arriving, it wasn't long before we were accosted by a stream of wannabe-tour guides offering their services, no doubt for some sort of tip at the end. One in particular seemed fixated on wanting to show us some 'erotic paintings', obviously it's successfully lured travellers past, and even though we turned him down immediately he couldn't stop repeating the word 'erotic paintings' like a mantra until we were out of earshot.

Hungry and getting annoyed, we sought refuge in lunch at a rooftop restaurant, one of several in the area. Being out of breath after climbing the six flights of stairs to the place didn't inspire confidence in how we would manage on the trek, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

The view from the rooftop restaurant

Instead of ordering our own meals, we decided to share three dishes - fried rice, potatoes and momos. Little did we know that these would become overly familiar over the next two weeks as we cycled around iterations of the same items for every lunch and dinner. At least in Kathmandu we were able to sample the 'buff momos' (made of what I assumed to be buffalo meat), which were actually quite tasty!

Buffalo dumplings, actually quite tasty

Apart from Durbar Square, the only other 'attraction' of note which we visited was 'The Garden of Dreams', which turned out to be a pleasant, though small, park with an entrance fee - presumably to keep out the riff-raff. After a slow stroll around the entire area (which took about 5 minutes), our plans for afternoon tea at the cafe were foiled by the fact that apparently the staff had apparently all suddenly gone on strike, despite the fact there were obviously still other customers there in the middle of their drinks.

Inside 'The Garden of Dreams'

Back in Thamel, the main tourist centre where we were staying, we browsed the shops for some hats and gloves for the trek, where we found that the local specialty seemed to be hats in the shape of animals. After trying on a couple (and probably annoying a few shopkeepers, though no doubt they were used to tourists laughing at each other while wearing ridiculous hats) we finally settled on a polar bear for me, a beaver for James and a psychedelic monkey for Mark - you'll see in the later photos.

We also discovered that as popular as outdoor brands like North Face and Mountain Hardwear were in Nepal, pirated versions of their products were just as popular. We ended up with some NZ$5 'North Face' drink bottles for the trek, along with some 'Columbia' gloves. Mark also hired a 'Mountain Hardwear' down jacket for the trek, which for all intents and purposes kept him pretty warm the whole time, so you really do have to wonder sometimes whether the legitimate stuff is proportionately more worth it, really!

For dinner we decided to try Yeti Cafe & Restaurant, apparently highly rated on TripAdvisor and only around the corner from our hotel. Alas, the food was pretty disappointing, though at least I got to sample some Nepali wine, while James and Mark had the Everest beer - apparently it wasn't as bad as Quilmes (the brew ubiquitous in Argentina).

Trying the local brew

That night I had my first abortive attempt at a hot shower - basically no matter how long I had any tap on, what came out would be icy cold. Later I would realise it was due to the fact the mains power was off, and while the lights were on due to a generator, they didn't bother with the hot water heater during that time.

The next morning would be an early start to catch the 6am flight to Lukla and begin our trek toward Everest Base Camp!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Pakuranga night market

Not a great photo but you get an idea of the crowd
I was pretty excited when I first heard about the Auckland Night Market, given the lack of good late-night food options here in Auckland. But my enthusiasm cooled significantly when I found out its location - Pakuranga. Nearly 20km away from Mt Albert! Why bother? Tonight I finally found out why.

We found the entrance easily enough, and the sea of vehicles in the carpark of the otherwise closed shopping mall was the first sign of its popularity. Inside, it was another sea - of people. And a real mix too - Kiwis, Pacific Islanders, and every kind of Asian, it's almost as if someone directed the crowd to embody the quintessential multicultural Auckland.

There were plenty of toys, clothing, jewellery and other wares for sale, but I was only really interested in the food - and I wasn't disappointed. Stall upon stall of Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Sichuan, Xian, Beijing, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Filipino, Italian, Belgian, American food, it was all there. I'd never seen so many delicious-looking and affordable food stalls at any other market or event - not even the Lantern Festival. And this happens every week?

Best of all was the atmosphere - stall owners loudly hawking their wares, visitors mulling over food choices then waiting patiently for their skewer of squid to finish grilling or their takoyaki (octopus ball) to be formed, great clouds of chili smoke permeating the air, making everyone cough, wok fire licking the metal frame of the easy-up shelters, making you nervously wonder if there are any fire extinguishers nearby. All this is a world away from the well-heeled, genteel folk nibbling on croissants and sipping on lattes at the French Market - which is still nice but in a different way.

I've always been annoyed by the fact that it always seemed like the only late night entertainment on offer for Aucklanders is the bars in the Viaduct, and all its associated bawdiness. But the large (family) crowd at the night market showed that there is clearly a demand for this sort of stuff, if only it existed.

It seems the Pakuranga night market has been so successful they've expanded to the Shore on Sunday nights. But where is the one for the CBD? Or even Mt Albert, which has one of the highest ratios of Asian residents in the city? A 20 minute drive on the motorway (in no traffic) is fine I suppose, but wouldn't this sort of thing be exactly what would liven up the central city? Wouldn't the Wynyard Quarter carpark be perfect for this?

Either way, I will definitely be back, while dragging along whoever will come with me, and I hope they continue to replicate the concept. Auckland will be a much better city for it!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Best of Auckland

Fish taco from Mexican Specialities
I tend to have a pretty strong opinion on where's the best place to go for a certain type of food in Auckland, and often disagree with what's published in the media, or wish there were a wider range of categories. So I thought I might as well put them all down in one post, for easy reference. They're also mostly on my food map.

Of course, this is all highly subjective, and it's certainly possible there are places I haven't even heard of which may be even better than those listed below. But I can only write from experience, after all. If you disagree or have an even better suggestion for any of the categories, I welcome your comments!

Best Yum Cha - Sun World
Best Taiwanese - My Kitchen
Best Indian - Little India
Best Indian Vegetarian - Ras Vatika
Best Ramen - Ramen Do
Best Sushi - Auckland Fish Market
Best Cheap Japanese - Renkon
Best Korean - Yummy Korean
Best Vietnamese - Try It Out
Best HK style cafe - Dragon's Gourmet
Best Chinese noodles - Xian Food Bar
Best Asian foodcourt - Food Alley
Best Mexican - Mexican Specialities
Best Tapas - Serafin
Best Pasta - Delicious
Best Pub Fare - Clare Inn
Best Cafe - Teed St Larder
Best Seafood - Auckland Fish Market Brasserie

I was going to write a short blurb about each one, but when I finished the list realised that would probably take the better part of a day, so will separate out any reviews into separate posts. In the meantime, please do go and try these places out, hopefully you'll enjoy them as much as I have!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Dumplings for dummies

I thought it'd be appropriate to follow up my noodle post with one about dumplings. Not all dumplings are created equal, and there are so many types available it's pretty easy to get them confused. Here's a bit of a guide, and again, some of my favourite places to sample these around town.

Yum cha dumplings
The only place we bother going for yumcha is Sun World Newmarket. Everywhere else I've tried has only been disappointing in comparison. And judging by how many non-Chinese patrons they regularly get nowadays, obviously the secret is out... Plus, free parking in the Rialto carpark for two hours if you buy something at the fruit & vege or tofu shop! Can't really beat that for convenience...

Yum cha or dim sum dumplings are really a whole category of their own, with quite a few different types. Generally they are made with a thin, slightly sticky, slightly translucent (if it's well-made) rice flour wrapper, and steamed. This is not a comprehensive listing, but just some of my favourites or most common ones.

Pork dumplings (siu mai)
This one is an exception to the rice-wrapper rule - pork mince mixed with chunks of pork fat, and encircled with a thin, bright yellow skin made of egg and flour. If poorly made it can be tough and chewy, but with the right amount of pork fat cut into the mince, it's tender and flavoursome. You shouldn't really have yum cha at all if you're adverse to pork fat, as it's an ingredient in the majority of the items sold...
Above was taken in HK, the ones in Sun World actually look & taste even better

Prawn dumplings (har gao)
Along with pork dumplings, prawn dumplings are probably the second most popular yum cha item, and used to be commonly sold together with the 'HAR-GAO-SIU-MAI!' refrain. A good prawn dumpling should only contain prawn and bamboo shoot, but more than a few restaurants cheap out by bulking this out with some pork mince, so remember to watch out for that! I can vouch for the deliciousness of the prawn dumplings at Sun World though, definitely a high-quality version.

Chive dumplings (gou choi gao)
One of my favourite dim sums, the filling is made up of Chinese chives, pork mince and a bit of prawn, which is very flavourful and fragrant, but tends to leave you with a bit of chive-breath (not unlike garlic breath). Totally worth it though!
Chive dumplings from Sun World - photo doesn't do it justice really

Peanut dumplings (chiu jau fun gwor)
Pork mince, bamboo, some other flavourings and a thicker rice flour wrapper makes this a bit different from the other dim sum dumplings. I personally am not a fan due to the strangeness of having the hard peanut amongst the rest of the soft filling, but it's always one we order for my dad and James. Apparently great dipped in chilli oil (though apparently everything is great dipped in chilli oil).

Okay, back to non-yum cha dumplings. The rest of these are typically wrapped in a round wrapper made from wheat flour, with a variety of fillings and serving methods - but usually just plain pork, or pork and chives.

Sichuan-style dumplings
The best version of this we've had of this is from 555 Dominion Rd. Even though the filling is comprised of only pork, it's perfectly seasoned and served with a spicy, tangy sauce that has so much flavour you don't really need to douse the dumpling in vinegar as per usual. Pair this with a bowl of small dandan noodles, and you've got yourself an awesome cheap dinner.
Sichuan-style dumplings from 555 Dom Rd

Dumplings in hot & sour soup
We've had this in a few different places in lieu of the Sichuan-style dumpling, and so far the winner is Happy Time Restaurant, 650 Dominion Rd. The sheen of bright red chilli oil may be a bit offputting at first, but you can easily scoop that aside if you prefer (as I did). Xian Food Bar actually did a pretty shoddy job of this dish, the dumplings were overcooked and falling apart while the soup was frankly quite bland. However, Happy Time delivered on both the soup flavour and dumpling texture/filling aspects, we'll definitely be back just for this dish!
Okay, you can hardly see them, but underneath that chilli oil are some delicious dumplings, from Happy Time Restaurant (not joking, that's what it's really called), 650 Dominion Rd

Shanghai style dumplings
These are a bit classier than your regular, rustic pork and chive dumplings. The filling is still (surprise, surprise) pork, but what makes a Shanghai-style dumpling special is the burst of hot soup that will go all over the table or your plate if you don't pick this up carefully enough not to break the dumpling skin before it gets into your mouth. I've been told the trick to getting the soup instead is to freeze it before wrapping along with the pork mince. Then viola, the soup reverts to liquid form when steamed - ingenious! Any decent Shanghainese restaurant should be able to do a good version of these, but the best we've had in Auckland was probably from Show Restaurant in 16 Kilham Ave, Northcote.

[UPDATE: A great place to go is Yi Ping Xiang in Dominion Rd, very cheap on the lunch menu.]
Shanghai-style dumplings, this was actually from HK Airport believe it or not

We should also give credit to the pre-made frozen dumplings, widely available at nearly all Chinese supermarkets and fruit & vege shops. I recommend the Siu Cheong ones, and I usually get the pork and chives, but really they're all pretty good - even the vegetarian one. I can't remember the exact price but I'm pretty sure you can get a massive tray for under or around $10. It's a great thing to keep in the freezer for a quick snack or meal. Make sure you get some dumpling sauce or just Chinese vinegar to go with it as well, I recommend this one:
Apologies for the crap photo... Tip: if it has that yellow starburst by the left of the image, means it's the spicy version

To cook the dumplings from frozen, simply turn the stove onto high, heat up a little bit of oil in a non-stick frypan, and make sure you have some boiling water handy (I usually just put the jug on). Place the frozen dumplings in the pan however you like but making sure they're not touching, then pour in the boiling water until it comes to maybe a third of the way up the sides of the dumplings. Slap a lid on, and just leave it until pretty much all the water's evaporated, about 5-10 mins. This steams and fries the dumplings at the same time. Once all the moisture's gone though, remove the lid and keep a close eye on it or turn the heat way down, otherwise they'll start to burn pretty quickly! Remove from pan as you prefer, or when the skin that's been on the pan turns a golden-brown. If you want to be a bit healthier you can also just chuck frozen dumplings in some salted boiling water for about 10 mins until cooked through. 

Finally, if you are feeling adventurous and want to make your own at home, here's a recipe I got from my mum, though I suspect something's missing because the last time I tried it, just didn't turn out as well... still, a good start though:

200g pork mince
2 small bunches Chinese chives (available from all fruit & vege shops owned by Chinese people - looks like bunches of grass)
1 packet dumpling pastry (you can find these in the fridges of pretty much all Chinese supermarkets, they come in these dual-round plastic packets)
1 egg
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp ginger powder
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp corn starch
1 tsp Chinese cooking wine
2 tsp oyster sauce

Set aside the pastry. Separate the egg, and set aside the egg white. Mix the yolk and all the other ingredients together until well combined. Put spoonfuls of the pork mixture into the middle of the round dumpling pastry. Brush some egg white (or water) around the inside edges of the pastry so they stick together, then fold in half to stick the sides together to form a crescent-shaped dumpling.

That's pretty much it. If you're not going to cook them right away, chuck them in the freezer to keep it fresh until needed. Make sure you sprinkle some corn starch in between each one so they don't stick to each other. And feel free to experiment with the recipe! I have seen some pretty crazy dumpling recipe books which include ingredients like pineapple or tomato (personally not that keen to try these), but obviously it's easy to swap the meat to beef or lamb, and use some different veges like Shanghai cabbage or even pickled ones, and tweak the seasonings to your own taste. Personally I'd stick to Asian ingredients though, otherwise why not just make pasta?

Overall, given how cheap you can buy dumplings either pre-made at the Chinese supermarket, or even totally prepared and served to you on a plate (typically something like 20 for $8), there's almost no point going to all the effort of making it yourself, except for novelty value. 

I hope that's been a good explanation or braindump (haha) of my dumpling knowledge, I haven't even had the chance to visit and review Barilla Dumpling (another Balmoral eatery) yet, nor have I mentioned Japanese-style 'gyoza', though I tend to find these not as good as actual Chinese dumplings, given they are just a derivative from the original. And let's not even get into the Eastern European 'dumplings' I sampled in Hungary and Czech Republic... no idea what Chinese word would be used to describe those, but they're definitely not anywhere in the same league as the above!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Nothing like a good noodle

When it's cold, there's nothing like a big steaming bowl of tasty noodles to warm you up. Since I love noodles so much, and there are quite a few noodle places featured on my food map, I thought I'd highlight some of my favourites.

Hand pulled braised pork noodles

Hand-pulled noodles with braised pork 
$8 from Xian Food Bar, 945 New North Rd, Mt Albert
Probably the best dish at any Xian Food Bar franchise, these noodles are uniquely 'hand pulled' and resemble long strips of dumpling pastry rather than your usual fare. They're thick, chewy (in a good way) and extremely satisfying. What's even better is when they're covered in this spicy, slowly braised pork sauce. Add a dash of vinegar and you're in carb-and-meat heaven.

Dandan noodles

Dandan noodles 
$5 from 555 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Probably every inland Chinese cuisine joint will have a variation of this dish, but what makes 555's great is their delicious combination of mince, veges, peanuts and their special soup. You can choose to have it with either rice or wheat noodles, and the best part? A small bowl is only $5! Definitely enough for a light dinner, or you could upsize it for $3, or pair it with some dumplings. Hands down one of the best value meals you can find in Auckland.

Misodare chicken udon

Misodare chicken udon 
$11 from Renkon (Parnell, Ponsonby, Takapuna, Pitt St & Durham St)
When I was working on the shore, I'll always remember how ecstatic I was the day I discovered a Renkon was opening in Takapuna. There's a reason I put all five branches on the food map. I reckon nobody should be eating donburi or udon soup outside of Renkon, really. I've tried many of their dishes but keep going back to the misodare chicken udon. You get tender chicken, flavour-packed soup and a generous heaping of greens. I haven't really come across another udon noodle soup in Auckland that compares, really. It helps that they're so fast and friendly, too. Why pay twice the price to have a smaller bowl of something not even as good elsewhere?

Tonkotsu (pork bone soup) ramen
$9 from Daikoku Ramen, Cnr Britomart Pl & Tyler St, CBD
I've been told a few times that Tanpopo is pretty awesome, but until I manage to make it there, Daikoku Ramen has set the bar for me. The shop is an unassuming little hole in the wall which feels like it could be in Tokyo, and I love how all the staff greet and thank you as you arrive/depart. Service is as speedy as any fast food chain, and the highlight is of course the signature pork bone soup. When it comes to noodles I usually prefer other types like udon, rice or even wheat, but the soup makes it very easy to polish off even a giant bowl of these - and that's the only way they serve them.

Beef noodle soup

Taiwanese beef noodle soup
$10.90 from My Kitchen, 543 Dominion Rd, Balmoral
Before today I would've recommended having this at Neighbour's Cafe in the city, however now that I've been to My Kitchen I'm definitely a convert (plus it's much more conveniently located for me). A good Taiwanese noodle should have 'al dente' (I guess?) noodles, a deep, rich beef soup base with no MSG, and of course, tender and flavourful chunks of beef brisket that's been expertly seasoned and slow cooked to perfection. I'm happy to say that My Kitchen delivered on all of these, plus it came with a cute (and superfluous?) orange wedge. That part is definitely not traditional, but I guess quite a nice touch nonetheless.

Raw beef pho noodle soup 
from Spring Vietnamese, 552 Glenfield Rd
It's been a while since I last came here so I can't recall the price, but I'm sure it didn't exceed $15. Pho is the signature Vietnamese noodle dish, and Spring does a great job with a fragrant broth that doesn't leave you thirsty - a hallmark of MSG-usage, and unfortunately my experience at Hansan (another popular Vietnamese noodle chain). The beef is sliced thinly and served raw on the noodles, but pretty much get cooked through if you leave them in the hot soup long enough. Being the raw food fan I am though, I usually fish these out quickly to retain that delicious beef tataki/carpaccio-esque quality.

Pad see eiw
$12 chicken/pork/beef or $14 prawn/seafood from Zap 4, 10 Commerce St, Auckland
Moving away from the noodle soups, I love these thick, flat rice noodles, and they taste great stir fried with most things, particularly Thai flavours. I inevitably go for seafood or prawn, which makes this probably the most expensive of my noodle picks, however it's definitely worth it. Zap manages to NOT overcook prawns which is a pet peeve of mine. With some extra fish sauce and a squeeze of lime, for me this is the ultimate fried-noodle dish.

Rice cake soup
$10.50 from Yummy Korean, 1 Mokoia Rd, Birkenhead
Okay, not strictly noodles but still a soup dish, I thought this deserved an honourary mention. On the odd occasion I don't feel like dolsot bibimbap (hot stone pot) when having Korean, I'll go for the rice cake noodle soup. They're served as oval slices of chewy, sticky rice cake in a milky egg-drop type soup. It's not the firey, kimchee-red tinged dish that most people think of when it comes to Korean, but it is definitely a very comforting dish, perfect for winter. If you've never had rice cake before and wanted to have a try, this is a great dish to go for.

Fish ball noodle soup

Hong Kong style fish ball noodle soup
Possibly one of my favourite meals of all time, unfortunately I have not found a single place in Auckland that does this justice. It's probably the fish itself - I suspect you can't get the species/breed they usually use in HK fish balls in NZ. There's a special flavour and texture which is always missing from the ones here. Plus they also never bother to serve it with the deep-fried fish slice rectangles either, unlike Hong Kong. I've been let down so many times I pretty much never order this locally anymore... Definitely one that I am hankering for next time I go back.

Finally, if you've been wondering what that picture in the background of this blog is, it's another one of my favourite HK noodle dishes, beef tripe noodle soup. Again, from the places I've tried, nothing's even come close in NZ so far. I blame the cows...

That's it for now - next time I'll feature some non-noodle dishes, but in the meantime, I urge you all to go out and try some of these dishes/places! I promise you'll enjoy it. =)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

An ode to Chef John

Being Chinese, some may think I'd have a raft of traditional Cantonese recipes up my sleeve, passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, growing up my mum was never that keen on letting me mess up her kitchen, plus Cantonese cooking is more about technique than recipes anyway.

I actually only started properly cooking about three years ago when I got a kitchen of my own to mess up. By then, most of my inspiration came from TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, but it wasn't always easy to follow their recipes or source their ingredients. That's when I discovered Chef John and his video recipes - and I haven't looked back since.

This post is a summary of my favourite Chef John videos, which have become staples of my cooking repertoire (as per the photos below).

No-knead ciabatta - if you've never baked bread before, but always wanted to try it, this is the way to go. Very easy, and you can only go wrong if you use old yeast, so make sure you have some fresh stuff on hand.

Garlic bread - something about using freshly-crushed garlic aioli makes this extra-delicious, much better than your run-of-the-mill stuff. I usually use a baguette from the Pyrenees deli for this one.

Sausage-stuffed cherry pepper poppers - possibly the most popular pre-dinner snacks I've ever made, it may seem a lot of effort but actually it's quite fun to stuff these. I usually find two sausages from the meat counter perfect for one jar of Peppadew peppers, which you can find quite easily even at regular supermarkets.

Roasted prosciutto-wrapped asparagus - a must-try during asparagus season, I can't think of a better combination. Once I made a whole lot of these, topped it off with a poached egg and scoffed it all myself as dinner. Yum.

No-knead pizza dough - people sometimes seem a bit shocked when I talk about making pizza from scratch, but when you have this dough recipe it really is no challenge. After making this, I could never face those hard, dimpled, pre-made bases from the supermarket again.

The 'ultimate' roast chicken - I never roast chicken any other way now. I once tried this 'chicken in milk' Jamie Oliver recipe and found it vastly inferior to this butter-under-the-skin method. You can vary the flavours a lot depending on what you put in the butter, but either way you can't really go wrong here! Best served with some crispy roast veges.

Cooking turkey for chickens - it was only because of this post that I was brave enough to volunteer to cook a turkey for the family Christmas lunch. And guess what? By all accounts it turned out brilliantly! Apparently I have booked myself turkey-duty for the next few years too, which I have no problem with, as long as these videos stay online...

Lamb moussaka burger - given that I love both lamb and eggplant, it was no surprise I loved this burger recipe. What was a surprise was the fact James loved it too, even though he's usually ambivalent towards lamb and hates eggplant. I really need to make this more often...

Angel-hair pasta with broccoli & garlic - if you've ever looked in the fridge and found a broccoli you bought ages ago when it was on special but kept forgetting to use, this is a delicious and slightly different way of dispensing with it. And feels healthy too, even though you're eating pasta.

Cauliflower spaghetti aglio olio - same applies for cauliflower, a delicious way to use one up that's anything but bland. Perfect for a quick dinner.

Truffled potato gratin - possibly my favourite Chef John-inspired recipe of all time, this always goes down a treat every time I make it, but then again how can anything with that much cream plus truffled cheese taste bad? Now, I have to admit that I've actually tweaked the recipe myself by using truffled mascarpone instead of sottocenere (you can usually get truffled mascarpone from Nosh), and also omitting the mushrooms altogether. Amazing. The other great thing about this recipe is it justifies my ownership of a mandolin slicer.

Jinx-proof braised lamb shanks - these turned out so well that I'm very reluctant to cook lamb shanks any other way. There's just something about all the flavours and the long slow cooking time that makes the dish meltingly delicious. If you have some lamb shanks, you can't go wrong with this recipe - it's in the name!

Chili chocolate mousse - a great prepare-ahead dessert, I've only messed this up once due to not letting the chocolate cool completely before folding in the cream, but that's pretty much the only way you can ruin this. And even then, it tasted delicious, just had the wrong texture. Usually it's very light and rich. I also like how you don't have to have gelatin on hand for this one, unlike most other chocolate mousse recipes.

There are so many more I haven't even tried yet, but it's hard not to keep going back to the same ones when I know they'll turn out so well. To anyone who's ever been iffy about cooking, I urge you to watch these videos and give it a shot, because it really makes it simple. Many thanks to Chef John for doing such an amazing job - keep up the awesome work!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

LBS no longer just a delicious pie in the sky

Today, when I hear about people talk about how location is the hot new mobile/social marketing/PR 'thing', I can't help but wonder what things would be like if I was doing my thesis now, as opposed to six years ago when I struggled to explain my research topic - Location-Based Services or LBS in the context of tourism - to most people.

Back then, I spoke to a few groups of 'advanced' or independent travellers (i.e. your typical backpacker) and asked what they thought about the idea of using location-based mobile services as part of their travel experience. It seemed they were quite keen as long as the services were reliable, easy to use, had trustworthy content, didn't invade their privacy, spam them with too much info, or were too costly. Funnily enough, they are probably still the pertinent issues of today.

Of course, LBS seemed especially like a 'pie in the sky' six years ago when there were no smartphones with large touchscreen interfaces and built-in GPS. In comparison, the clunky mobile phones of old were simply incapable of delivering an intuitive and satisfying user experience when it came to location. Now, the main problem is connectivity, particularly for travellers. Mention 'data roaming' to most smartphone users and they probably have a horror story of discovering bills running into the hundreds or thousands upon their return. And if you're only going somewhere for a week or two, you're hardly going to bother buying a local SIM. Even then, will local telcos have reasonable prepay data offerings?

An alternative connectivity option is WiFi, which is going great in cities like Hong Kong, but NZ has yet to offer much on this front. There are some promising signs this may change soon, particularly in time for the Rugby World Cup, but that's hardly a solution for the non-urban or even suburban areas that visitors will ultimately end up in. Ubiquitous WiFi or even mobile network coverage is simply unfeasible for cities or countries as sprawled out as Auckland or NZ.

When travelling, the one thing that will keep working on your smartphone regardless of mobile data or WiFi coverage is the built-in GPS. Any apps reliant on this to the exclusion of network connectivity would mean having to have pre-downloaded, fully self-contained content within the device. Google already have a few of these on offer, which is a pretty good start. Of course, having your phone basically ping satellites chews through the battery rather quickly, and you wouldn't want to be stranded somewhere with no knowledge of how to get out!

All potential pitfalls and negativity aside, things are certainly looking a lot brighter for LBS than they were six years ago, and there are already some amazing applications out there. People are always talking about foursquare, but until more firms in NZ take ownership of their foursquare place, it's not going to penetrate the mass market or be able to offer real value to users. Facebook places has a huge leg up already in that regard, and it'll be interesting to see if companies are more likely to want to 'own' this. This is all very well and good for businesses like Burgerfuel, but for tourism LBS apps someone else may have to take responsibility for public or natural attractions with no business driver.

Given many small (tourism) businesses may not necessarily even be online yet, asking them to have a LBS app may be a bit of a stretch. But definitely not as much of a stretch as it would have been six years ago! Bring on better, cheaper connectivity along with longer battery lives for smartphones, and we might just get there within the next six years...

Thursday, 26 May 2011

A trip down memory lane

After such a long absence from the regular blogging, I thought it was about time to pick this up again. Twitter may be a great way to force yourself down to the bare essentials, but sometimes you really do want to say more than can be contained within 140 characters. As you can see below, this used to be just a dumping ground for my travel posts, but that's all going to change...

I can't say for sure what the new posts will be comprised of, but knowing me they will probably mostly revolve around food. You might be wondering why I so titled this post, and it's because deciding to try and regularly blog again is like putting on a really old, well-worn but comfortable pair of shoes. It seems like - and was in fact - years ago when I started blogging at the tender age of 15 (!). Now 27, I feel like a bit of a grizzled veteran. Like:

Back in the day, before all these newfangled things like Twitter or FourSquare or Tumblr, we had to write our own HTML if we wanted to make a website... Most people started out on Geocities. Back in 1998 when I was 14, I had a website with a background I had made up myself using Corel Draw... I was so proud to be one of the first to use a layout with TABLES! And of course I NEVER embedded background midis without letting people turn them off! I was all about the emoticons like ^_^ O.o and >_< Then the blogging craze started and everyone was using this service called Of course that went under, so after that I was tossing up between xanga and LiveJournal, but LJ was so much more social, with the emoticons and Friends Only posts... And of course we were IMing each other on ICQ as well... Ah, those were the days!

Reminiscing aside, blogging hasn't really changed that much in this past decade. Basically, you write a whole bunch of text and upload it to some webpage, that people can read. You may have social media gadgets and promote your posts via Twitter and Facebook, but it's still all about the copy. The only thing that's different is probably the ability to blog on the go via smartphones, but a touchscreen or even slide-out keyboard isn't exactly conducive to typing many paragraphs of text. That's where tablets can't really trump a traditional keyboard - there's nothing more satisfying than the tactile feedback of the keys bouncing back when you type for hours on end. That's why we always take our netbook when we travel, I would hate to have to type out whole blog posts on my tiny phone keyboard!

Even though I won't be travelling around somewhere exciting like I usually would when I've been blogging these past few years, I'll still try my best to keep this interesting! Let's see how that pans out.