Food

Planning

Dollars & Sense: 10 things to note when budgeting for a trip

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The problem of trying to figure out how much cash to bring on a holiday is something that typically doesn’t have a good solution. Overdo it and there’s so much excess cash that sometimes tempts you to spend it on things you don’t need just so you don’t have to convert them back to your own currency. Under do it and you’ll be searching out another money exchange counter in no time, which frankly, wastes precious time.

When I used to do bi-annual 2-week trips to Europe about a decade ago, I went on a strict budget and told myself that no matter what, this fixed amount – do or die – was going to have to see me through. It clearly didn’t always work, particularly when I sneaked in a purchase or 2 with a credit/debit card in some seedy places.

Most people go about budgeting like this:

  • ask someone who went to the same place you are going how much they thought they spent
  • (in cases where nobody is around to ask), start asking on online forums
  • wait till the last minute, panic, come up with a random figure to bring and just wing it

None of these methods are very helpful (the last one even more so). And you find yourself either trying to do stupid things to save costs near the end of your holiday (“Who needs to spend on laundry? I will wear the same pair of underwear for 3 days – I know I can do it!”), using a credit card in some seedy venue, then fretting about your card getting cloned or trying to change money at a money changer when you can’t speak the language and don’t recognise the currency properly and so are almost guaranteed to get cheated to some degree.

I figured that there had to be a practical way to get an estimate of how much money to bring on a holiday. After nights of desperate browsing and calculating, it seems I somehow hit upon a sort of method of doing just that.

The general idea behind this is to:

  • note down any costs which are fixed
  • try to estimate those costs which are variable (in foreign currency)
  • total the whole lot up
  • figure out how much you need in your home currency to change for that amount of foreign currency

What you are trying to do is to make sense of madness, so some boundaries must exist. Please note that this will only work when some basic conditions of your trip are met before you go on it :

  • you know where you are going (the exact location)
  • you know the length of the trip
  • your accommodation is booked ahead of time
  • activities/side trips are mostly booked ahead of time
  • you spend responsibly while on a holiday

If you are backpacking to a general region, aren’t sure exactly which countries/regions you will be in or how long your trip will last then this won’t work for you. Or if you are the sort who likes buying a round for the entire bar in every bar, this isn’t for you, either.

But if you meet the conditions above, here then, are a rough series of steps to figuring out how much to bring. First, though, figure out the fixed expenses, such as air tickets, pre-booked activities and tours, hotel accommodation charges, transportation and prepaid SIMs.

1. The length of your trip

This is the first thing you figure out since this determines how many days of expenditure are involved. Even if some of the days are partial, note those down since you will need to spend money on those days as well.

2. The number of meals needed

Food is one of the most straightforward expenses you will need to budget for. Although this is a variable (who knows what you will eat for each meal? – more on which, later), you still know how many meals you will need to have. A few things to keep in mind here :

  • Is breakfast is included as part of your stay at your place of accommodation?
  • Are meals provided on flights? (assuming you can stand airline food, of course)

These may be meals you don’t have to budget for as they are already provided.

What you will end up with is a list resembling this :

e.g. for 4 nights
Incoming flight at 10am, outgoing flight at 2pm
4 breakfasts (breakfast provided on incoming flight)
5 lunches
4 dinners (dinner provided on outgoing flight)

3. Planned activities

Any planned activities such as tours are fixed costs. Note these down.

Some of these will insist on payment in cash only, not necessarily in the currency of the country you are visiting (e.g. some tours ask for payment in US dollars only). Remember to take these into account when changing currency!

4. Other fixed costs

There are typically some other costs which you will know of ahead of time, or at least have a rough idea of. Classic examples are transportation costs to/from the airport and possibly mobile phone card costs. Note these down as well since they are generally known values. A google search like ‘prepaid SIM card cost in [insert place]‘ will bring up many threads that will give you an estimate cost.

5. Estimating daily costs

This is where things get a little tricky – you have pretty much removed the costs which are static. Now we try to estimate the variable costs as best we can.

To do this, we need an estimate on the daily costs of living in the places you will be visiting. You can find this on websites such as Expatistan (www.expatistan.com). The information there is crowd-sourced and should give you an idea of the daily costs for various activities on your trip.

6. Meals

The easiest variable cost to deal with is meals. You already know how many meals you need for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner). Using the information taken from the website, you should be able to calculate an estimate of how much your meals should cost. A few tips here :

  • In some cases (typically dinner) you may find more than one cost option listed on your cost estimate website (e.g. a meal at a budget restaurant vs a 4 course meal at an Italian restaurant in an expat area). Always use the more expensive choice in your estimates. Overestimating is good.
  • I find that budgeting dinner for 2 people is a good idea, since this puts you in a position to pay for a possible partner or date. At the very worst, it will mean you can manage a more fancy dinner or have a bit of spare cash on hand, never a bad thing. Think about those lovely seaside dinner places on holiday.

7. General daily activities

The next is a list of general daily activities you might undertake. This can be a bit tricky but typically, there are few things that will get done every day on a holiday. Examples of these are :

  • a cab ride
  • a museum trip
  • sitting down for a coffee at a cafe

Of course, this varies from person to person and you should tailor this for the sort of things you might do daily while on holiday.

The general idea is if you think you might do it, then factor it in. Err on the side of caution. Multiply this estimated daily cost against the number of days your trip is and you have another estimated cost dealt with.

8. Daily spare cash

This might be the hardest thing to estimate but looking at the rough costs of various things the website gives you for the place you are going to will give you an idea of how much this can be. Multiply this by the number of days you are spending in the place and you should have a buffer of spare cash, just in case.

9. Adding it all up

Add up the fixed and estimated costs for your trip and round up to the nearest. Again, overestimating is good. You now have the estimated amount of cash you need in foreign currency.

10. Currency conversion

The final step is to calculate how much you will need of your own home currency in order to change for the foreign currency or currencies you will need. I use currency conversion websites for this (e.g. Oanda) and then add another about 15% on for the amount of home currency I should exchange. This is to take into account getting a crappy exchange rate at the money changer.

Hopefully, this should give you a workable sum of cash to use at your destination. In practice, I typically end up with a bit of extra cash which I have to change back to my home currency. While this isn’t terribly efficient since I almost definitely lose some value in changing currencies back, I’d rather have extra cash at the end of my trip and be prepared for contingencies than find myself short of cash.

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AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

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The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Wine Education

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I was just along for the ride to Kakheti, the richest and most fertile part of Georgia that lies in the shadow of the magnificent Caucasus range. The wine tour that we did with Colour Tour Georgia (and with Gvantsa and Tazo) was more for TC than me, but the journey into the mountains and into Telavi – Kakheti’s old capital – was just as scenic as the one to Kazbegi.

Wine tasting was limited to 2 large producers: Shumi and Khareba and both companies are impressive in their own ways. Shumi takes advantage of micro-climates in Georgia, producing wine from different regions where terroir helps shape it flavours and taste. Khareba’s sprawling compound , on the other hand, consists of a lovely park, and an 8-km-long underground, converted tunnel beneath the Greater Caucasus that houses wines of all sorts.

Archaeological excavations seem to suggest that Georgia has produced wine from 8000 B.C., long before the empires rose and fell, or so says the tiny Shumi winery museum in Tsinandali. The traditional method of fermenting wine in a Qveri – a large, roundish terracotta clay vessel buried in the ground – is still practised in villages today and for some large wineries, Qveri wines now make up the premium range of their collection. As we learnt, Qveri wines produce deep, dark colours as opposed to the European way of fermentation and in particular, white wines turn out a deep amber colour; red wines turn out nearly black. Both have strange but stronger aromas and are typically very dry – TC is better suited to sorting them out than I can – but generally, the difference is rather stark.

And that’s saying something when all I smell is typically sour socks and the sharp burn of alcohol. Just sipping a Qveri’s bitter dryness just made me cringe.

Georgians are understandably, proud of their wine heritage and their enthusiasm about wine shines through every time they talk about it. There’re never-ending jokes of course, about Georgian men’s ability to imbibe 3-litres of wine each when the occasion calls for it and the correlation to their stomach sizes. No one ever makes a toast with beer – it’s considered inferior to wine – and since every family in villages practically own their own vineyard for their own wine consumption. With a wine culture that’s accessible to the common (and poor) man, it’s unsurprising that people don’t tend to get snobby about wines here.

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DestinationsFoodGeorgiaThe Caucasus

Food, wine and revolution

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The long road to democracy, a squeaky-clean police force (thanks to a reality show called ‘Police’ to restore its standing in the eyes of the public and a concerted effort to clamp down corruption) and a booming tourist industry that almost everyone is happy to capitalise on pretty much characterises what I saw in Tbilisi – and perhaps to a lesser extent, the whole of Georgia. The Tbilisi of today is a far cry of Tbilisi in 2002, at least according to Paul Rimple, one of the authors and guides for Culinary Backstreets, the food tour company with which TC and I signed up to get a feel of the local area.

A native Californian who’d been a chef, a blues musician and is now a journalist in Tbilisi after spending some time in Poland, Paul made it clear from the start that he wasn’t a tour guide, but rather, someone who knew the city and wanted to share the places he loved with visitors.

That was perfectly fine with us, being in a city where it was hard getting around without knowing Georgian. Our day started on a winter morning in the old town and after shaking hands with Paul, who stopped to tell us about his own experience living through the end of Eduard Shevardnadze era to the Rose Revolution and finally to what Georgia has become today.

We made stops at a tone bakery, a wine/cheese/cha-cha shop just next to the Sioni Cathedral and then hopped into a taxi to elbow our way through the Deserter’s Bazaar (or the Dezertirebi), a chaotic, boisterous place that hawks the freshest fruits, vegetables, spices, oils, nuts, piglets (dead) and well, pretty much everything else, named as such because army deserters sold weapons here in the early part of the 1920s. Today, you’re more likely to be faced with anonymous plastic bottles filled with what could be honey, sunflower oil or any other unnamed liquid rather than guns and toothless old crones (who look alarmingly like the old witches in fairytales) hustling you to buy their cheeses.

This is Paul’s favourite place and he has been called insane for that, but it’s clear he’s on very familiar terms with the shopkeepers there, stopping to greet people while doing his grocery shopping as we followed in his wake, buying the things he bought and then sitting down for handmade Khinkali (dumplings) at Zakhar Zakharich. Other several hole in the wall-type shops we made pit-stops included a Georgian wine/cheese shop whose owner went to the only English-speaking school in Georgia, as his Soviet-sympathetic father had probably expected his son to be an interpreter for the KGB. But said son grew up to make cheese and wine instead, which probably puts him in a better position now than ever, if he does indeed get to retain his license to make blue cheese.

TC and Paul sampled 7 different types of wine at Vino Underground, the most interesting being the amber-coloured ones that were fermented traditionally in the ground in large earthenware vessels called Qveri(s) for about 6 months or more, a process which produces very dry, deep-coloured liquids with unusual aromas. And finally, we headed a few blocks down and around to Ezo, an organic restaurant that’s focused on putting quality food on the table – cooked just the way a Georgian’s mother/aunt/granny does it, supposedly – sourced through sustainable farming methods and fair-trade deals.

Through Paul’s stories, it was easier through learn about the radical facelift that Tbilisi had undergone, some pieces of Georgia’s history finally falling into place after he filled in the gaps for us, but others remained frustratingly out of reach. Replete with wine and fantastic Georgian food, we walked dazedly back to Sioni Cathedral through backstreets that we would never have ventured on our own, never quite getting over the fact that Georgia – and its inhabitants – still remain quite a mystery apart from what the history books say.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodTaiwan

Beyond the culinary

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The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds.

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We managed only 3 here and if the plan was to eat our way through the streets lined with stores and persistent sellers, there’s really only so much I could stomach when it comes to fried chicken, bubble tea and starchy oyster omelette, let alone consecutive days of this stuff. More traditional dishes do tend to be under represented at such places though – not that it’s a bad thing – though I could hardly say that a Taiwanese night market showcases the best of Taiwanese dishes.

But food here in general, has a lot to offer and can be sublime, especially if one understands the smaller shops with Chinese-only signboard, menu and order sheet. Otherwise, it’s back to pointing at a picture (if there’s one), then raising your fingers for quantity and hoping you’ve been understood.

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Beyond food (and it’s difficult to get past that), I struggled to see under the veneer of commercialism and the glitzy, glamorous buildings that have sprung up in the city centre. The older generation seems to anchor the place still; much of the architecture in the older parts of Taipei date from the Chiang Kai-Shek era that used to house his followers who thought they’d found a temporary home in Taiwan but never left in the end.

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There is much yet to be discovered: the eastern but near-inaccessible coast, the far south or even the natural mountainous landscape that beguiles so many people. Instead, there were spaces that I peeked into: the pulsating, hip young district of Ximen, a hike up Elephant Mountain in the heart of Taipei, taking a Youbike rental up and down the Keelung River, going to the hilly, Maokong village to hike and sample tea.

But I’m strangely happy with taking it slowly for once.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodItineraryTaiwan

Taipei Eats: A food tour

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It’s difficult to know where to begin with the mind-boggling food of Taiwan but one thing I knew when I planned this trip was that it would be near impossible to get around to the places the locals like without having an English-speaking local to bring us around.

Going with Taipei Eats for a few hours of walking and eating traditional Taiwanese dishes was a god-send, as was the lovely guide Jean who took us through the maze of streets and wet markets – and straight into the heart of Taipei where shops could be holes in the wall with untranslated menus. The philosophy of Taipei Eats, as Jean explained, has been to choose places where everything is handmade (with an artisan vibe at times) with a specialisation in a particular dish.

f11. Hulin wet market (Yongchun Station)

Fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in their rawest (and hopefully freshest) form. A few paces down, there’s thousand-layer scallion cake, a thick slab of bread with green onions and sesame baked in a tandoor-like oven.

2. Songshan Gua Bao

No. 179
Songshan Rd
Xinyi District

Variations of this particular bun – filled with pork belly, preserved mustard greens then topped with coriander and peanut powder – can be found in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and China. Jean insists that this is one of the most popular stops in the tour and it’s not hard to see why.

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An optional stop was to a betel nut stand, where blue-collar workers flock to for a quick stop to get their hit of stimulant when their energy starts flagging. It stains the lips and teeth crimson while providing a rush and a numbing effect – something I’d passed over.

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3. Raw stinky tofu

No.2, Alley 3
Lane 120, Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

Sweet wintermelon tea rarely does anything to counter the raw sewage smell of the fermented tofu, which comes in 3 levels of fermentation (10, 12 and 13). Fermented way longer than what is sold in the night market, it’s the only shop in Taiwan to offer raw, fermented tofu (of the stinkiest level) and for that, it’s famous in its own right. It’s also a shot of probiotics, so keep that in mind that it’s probably good for the stomach though not for the taste buds.

4. Cold Sesame Noodles

No.105
Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

We each got served small portions of wheat noodles drenched in sesame sauce and fresh cucumber with a miso-based soup of meatballs, tofu and egg. After the lingering taste of stinky tofu, this was a culinary reprieve.

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 5. Kao-Chi

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

I particularly loved this stop because of the artistic atmosphere of Songshan Cultural and Creative space, where this branch of Kao-Chi is located. Perhaps as much as I loved the Xiaolongbao (dumplings made with pork and gelatine which melts when steamed).

6. Wu Pao Chun Bakery

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

Ubiquitous in Taiwan, pineapple cakes have a shortcrust-like pastry with sweet pineapple filling, though the fillings differ from bakery to bakery. With only 2 stores in Taiwan (1 in Taipei and another in Kaohsiung), Wo Pao Chun’s famed master Boulanger’s makes pineapple cakes that people queue for. We came out with boxes of them, then lugged them around for the rest of the tour.

7. Bei Men Fung Li Bing

No.9 Alley 33
Lane 216 Section 4
Zhongxiao E Rd

The owners who set up this shaved ice shop hail from Yilan, where the sherbet (or the shaved ice dessert) is just made out of water, sugar and extracts. Done traditionally, there’s even a notice in the shop that states they’d never do a franchise just to keep the quality.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodJapan

The Path of Peace

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In Ryukyuan legend, Nirai Kanai is the mythical realm across the sea where deities dwell and when invited, bring blessings into the home of the villagers. However seductive that imagery really is, present day Okinawa still styles itself as the island paradise (there’s even a bridge here named after this place), if the tree-lined paths, the beautiful coastal roads, the constant warm sea-breeze and the island vibes are any indications of what’s plastered on tourist sign boards.

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After days of driving along the coast and staring at Okinawa’s turquoise waters, it is beyond difficult to go back to the cramped streets and buildings of Naha and not feel somewhat claustrophobic. The place I’m putting up at is close to the shopping street, better known as Kokusai-dori, and the overwhelming display of tourist wares and food stalls along this mile-long road is so similar to what I’ve encountered in other major Japanese cities.

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I returned the car, then promptly and impulsively rented yet another for the next 24 hours so I could simply get out of the city for more breathing space and more of the coast. And for more of the glorious food too, which I’ve liked for years before visiting. Okinawan cuisine, much like the region and the people themselves, falls in the gap between Japanese, American and Chinese cuisines: stir-fries – or better known as Champuru – with wheat gluten, taco rice, peanut tofu, soba (that looks more like udon or Chinese egg noodles) in clear broth with braised sanmainiku (pork belly) and soki (pork ribs) are staples of the Izakayas and restaurants, made to differing standards. My carefully chosen encounters with these dishes however, thus far, in Yunangi in Naha and Yomitan Monogatari have been nothing but bliss.

dinner

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Admittedly, the alluring wildness of and the strange, odd mix of cultures found in this tropical place are hard to resist. In the dazzling sun, sand and sea, it’s almost easy to forget Okinawa’s bloodied past that culminated in the a 3-month battle in 1945 in the Pacific theatre of war, termed by the locals as tetsu no bōfū, or Typhoon of Steel because of the endless artillery fire and bombing raids that happened here.

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There is only “dishonour in war” as the Okinawa Prefectural Peace museum strives to remind its visitors, corroborated by the horrors of the eyewitness accounts about the severity of the campaign. The thrust of its message is neither quite anti-American (not too overtly at least) nor pro-Japanese but Okinawan-centric; the heavy focus remains the massive loss of civilian lives and the brutality they endured on an island made hell during the attacks.

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It’s difficult not to be anything but profoundly moved by the whole area, its solemn, quiet, gentle atmosphere – barring the noise from school groups and tour groups – jarringly ironic considering how much of Okinawa was burnt, defaced and ravaged 7 decades ago. Yet built on the site where the former Japanese Imperial Army headquartered and where thousands of Okinawans committed suicide under the orders of the Japanese government to avoid capture, the memorial park’s stark reminder for peace couldn’t cry any louder.

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Destinations

The comfort zone

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Copenhagen’s sheen has stayed fresh for a few years now and really shows no quick sign of abating, which is primarily the reason TC and I chose to end our 2-week jaunt there…once again. To visit our favourite haunts, walk our favourite streets and simply take in the stylish and sophisticated Danish interior and furniture design that continues keep my mouth dropping open.

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We finally went back to Hösttried out The Olive Bar & Kitchen and then walked straight back into Cafe Alma in Islands Brygge like bosses of the place. We ate, drank and essentially, stayed merry as we staggered around.

And got drunk, in TC’s case.

I don’t have much else to say, except for how 3 days (or 2.5 days really) would never quite be enough here. I miss Copenhagen already, even before I’ve left the city.

Psst. A secret? New Norm actually sells the kitchenware that Höst uses and even shares some of their recipes – which I obviously can’t even begin to recreate.

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DenmarkDestinationsEuropeFoodScandinavia

Copenhagen – Redux

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The flight from Ilulissat to Copenhagen was a long, long one and getting back to the capital was like greeting an old friend again after a week away. I said goodbye to the rest of the tour group and was only a teeny little bit sad to do so, having learnt how to say goodbye (mostly permanently) over the last 2 decades.

There was no plan TC and I had in Copenhagen apart from walking around aimlessly, eating the spectacularly New Nordic food, going cold meat shopping and getting used to the different time zone again.

Thanks to what TC had seen in an episode in the Amazing race, stumbled our way to Ida Davidsen for smørrebrød to see a slew of plates (the daily specials) in a glass case. Because there wasn’t anyway we could have deciphered the 250 over types of smørrebrød on her menu, an old lady manning the counter painstakingly explained what the daily specials consisted of and we happily told her our orders (smoked eel, beef and prawns on bread) only to realise just how delicious but exorbitant that whole bloody meal was.

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Dinner was at Ma’ed, an Ethiopian cafe in Nørrebro that had injera (a spongy, hole-y, sourdough flatbread) on which meat, lentils and yoghurt are piled on top. TC loved it immediately and being the difficult one, I disagreed.

When it comes to food, I stand corrected: Copenhagen is pretty life-changing. I’ve repented of my insular, reluctant inner foodie after tasting eel that doesn’t reek of brine and cucumber that can be made into a powder.

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My last night in Copenhagen was spent in Restaurant Radio, an informal, small place opened by Claus Meyer (of the Noma fame) and two other chefs near the Forum Metro station emphasising fresh, organic ingredients and innovative gastronomy. The menu on its website is seasonal and deliberately vague (and possibly too fashionable for my tastes), listing only the ingredients on each course (for instance, celeriac, cod, grain) without revealing anything about its preparation or its provenance. Which is probably why I harassed the poor servers to no end about the makeup of each particular dish.

The meal was far from disappointing though; in fact, I was awed by each course that went something like this:

Starter: Bread with Butter mixed with caramelised onion, crackers with mushroom cream.

Course 1: Potato cream and chips turned over in vinegar, lightly roasted Danish squid and roasted olive crunch.

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Course 2: Seared cod, dill, celeriac and cream in lumpfish roe.

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Course 3: Fried savoy cabbage, kale, apple sauce, apple strips and pistachio.

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Course 4: Roasted pork breast, salsify, pickled onions.

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Dessert: Carrot sorbet on dehydrated carrots glazed with caramel, white chocolate crunch and pearl barley.

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Thanks for the beautifully sunny day and for memories again, Copenhagen. See you sometime soon.

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DestinationsEuropeFoodScandinaviaSweden

Stockholm – redux

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Thus far, the wireless internet has sucked. In both the hotel and in the train, but I probably should be grateful that I can actually blog and stay online while the snow-covered landscape whizzes by.

The first two days in Stockholm – en route to Copenhagen and Greenland – passed in a jet-lagged blur, and revisiting the hotel I last stayed in was a surreal experience, particularly so at the very moment I tried to borrow an electric kettle from the same man who worked at reception (which I did the last time). He nodded, went downstairs and promptly came back with the same kettle that I used over a year ago.

Nothing seems to have changed too much.

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There is an eternal band of construction around Slussen since the first time I visited in 2006, the metros are still holes in the walls dug deep underground, the people are selectively friendly and the weather is just as unforgiving. The uber-cool Scandinavian design has simply gotten cooler in fifty shades of grey, black and white, so much so that they might want to consider changing their national flag to monochromes.

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I have a food-snob as a travelling companion this time – which translates to a heavier investment in meals, funkier (and sometimes more expensive) food. Which is part of the reason why I realised just how hip Stockholm can really get, especially now that we’ve managed to find time to wander the the streets of Sodermalm and Odengatan. In two days, we’ve gone to the Östermalms Saluhall for lunch and to Sodermalm for New Orleans food as well as traditional Swedish meatballs done with different sorts of meat.

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Already, we’ve planned dinner in Cafe Alma in Copenhagen when we’re not even there yet. But truthfully, it’s all because it’s near a laundromat – or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

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