Category Archives: Food

Hoi An – on Vietnam’s street food trail

Street food treats are impossible to miss here in Vietnam. Not to mention the fact that if you pick smartly, they’re also the best and cheapest way to eat too.

We’ve been spoilt since arriving three weeks ago. 20000 VND Pho in Hanoi was a chili-infused dream, with the added bonus of blasting out my Sapa-induced head cold. Rice, greens and fried shrimp on a filthy sidestreet in Hue’s Dong Ba market was also a culinary delight, costing less than $2 between us.

Yet it was Hoi An where Vietnam’s sensational street offerings went above and beyond what we’d come to expect. For many coming here, places to eat begin and end with the seafood and bargain beer joints along the riverfront. And there’s no shame in that, what with gorgeous views of the UNESCO supported town and squid and shrimp at bargain prices.

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Xian’s Muslim Quarter – reviving China’s culinary reputation

The red lanterns that hang from the eves in Xian’s Muslim Quarter are caked in a thick layer of grey dirt. Much like the rest of this ancient city, the streets of this minority area can’t escape the pollution and filth that hang in the air of most Chinese towns. But while the regular highways and byways of Xian offer a very modern take on Chinese progress, with the aforementioned pollution inescapable, the Muslim quarter rises above everything thanks to truly stunning street food.

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Chinese food – getting greasy on the culinary trail

As regular readers will know, I’m more than a touch obsessed with eating good quality grub. Hell, it’s half the reason I decided to travel through Asia for six months in the first place.

Yet after four weeks of endlessly impressive and invigorating meals in Japan, a place where even something as unhealthy as tempura can be balanced out with super fresh pickles and steamed veg, we hit China.

 

In fairness, the first few days, spent partying and pootling around Hong Kong, were punctuated by dim sum to die for at the excellent Maxim’s Palace, as well as delicious and healthy squat and gobble noodles, destroyed in record time in our dash to the races at Happy Valley.

 

But since then it’s been a grease fest of truly epic proportions. Lunch and dinner everyday in Shanghai and Guilin, our two stops in the Chinese mainland so far, has involved staring down at empty dishes with a shimmering pool of oil looking back up at us. Whether it’s fried rice, greens, pickled cucumbers or ribs, every single dish is ruined by a willingness to kill flavour with fat. Only steamed veggies seem to escape the curse. Endless thirst and culinary disappointment are fast becoming a way of life for us in China.

 

Just one place so far has managed to rise above the crushing mediocrity. Southern Barbarian, sitting down a small backstreet in Shanghai’s French Concession and recommended by Marta, our Airbnb host, was an oasis of sumptuous fresh mint salads, beef kebabs without an ounce of fat and mashed potatoes with local veg tossed in. This Yunnanese restaurant was made all the better by chirpy staff and a beer list that even allowed me to indulge in a Coopers Green. This was not your typical Chinese oil merchant.

 

I know I’m not alone in complaining about Chinese cuisine. For a country that is renowned for its vibrant food, it’s been a surprising disappointment. China is incredible, but finding healthy, grease-free food is a task that’s starting to look beyond me.

 

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Japan’s over packaging obsession

With a beaming smile, the girl at the checkout expertly wrapped my doughnut in grease proof paper, slipped it into a paper bag, taped it precisely and placed the neat package in a fresh carrier bag. Aside from my shameful doughnut habit, rising to a Homer Simpson-esque five-a-day at the midpoint of our Japan trip, this was indicative of a particularly bad habit that dogs shops throughout the land of the rising sun. Namely, endless over packaging.

 

Every single shop we’ve bought something in over the past four weeks has insisted on handing us the goods, whether it’s a single apple or a ¥50 biro, in dainty bags that always, without fail, wind up being shoved in the bin. For a nation so (rightly) obsessed with separating rubbish and ensuring recyclable bottles, cans and papers are separated from combustible trash, this strikes me as utterly bizarre. Carrier bags might be reusable, but more often than not end up in bins. They’re just about the most unenvironmentally friendly object consumers get their hands on.

Most amusingly of all, paper shopping bags from clothes stores are almost all covered in thick waterproof plastic when it rains, utterly negating the point of handing out recyclable paper bags in the first place. The times we’ve said we’re ok to go without a carrier we’ve been met with bemused looks. Asking our Japanese and expat friends about this, they’ve told us this just doesn’t happen.

As a confirmed (and admittedly tedious) eco-bore, I’m amazed by this approach. Moan as I do about supermarket shoppers back home using endless carrier bags, bags for life and totes are always in abundance whenever you pick up a pint of milk at Sainsburys.

But it’s not just bags. A KitKat comes in a cardboard box, with three bars inside, each wrapped in thick, hard to open plastic. Every single vegetable or fruit at a supermarket is tightly packed in unrecyclable cellophane, whether it’s a single apple or a hefty radish. Marks and Spencer’s insistence on putting its over washed and too-perfect groceries in needless packaging has nothing on this

It’s hard to understand just why Japan insists on such standards. Perhaps using so many bags is simply down to a wish to provide helpful service that makes consumers feel valued, while wrapping up produce is aimed at protecting from disease, a distinctly Japanese concern. Either way, surely such an unenvironmentally friendly approach is unsustainable.

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MOS Burger, Okonomiyaki and more Japanese treats

The Japanese burger odyssey took a turn for the worse earlier this week. Following a string of recommendations and coming at the end of a cold day in Kyoto, we ducked into MOS Burger, one of Japan’s most well-loved burger chains.

The results were, frankly, disastrous. Presented with a pallid cheeseburger, evidently cheffed up en microwave, we stared at each other in bewilderment. Could this be the same place given such wholehearted praise by fellow food connoisseurs? 

This was lower than a McDonald’s in the burger pecking order and no mistake. Despite having not tasted one of Ronald M’s creations since a particularly boozy night in Sydney four years ago, I would have gladly traded this MOS monstrosity for a Big Mac.

And so we’ve decided to ditch western food for good. Well, until we hit Tokyo again next week. So far, we’ve been utterly vindicated. The Japanese food we’ve eaten since our MOS excursion has been superb.

The highlight was undoubtedly at Okura in the ancient Japanese capital, Nara. Here we ate stunning Okonomiyaki, Japanese-style omelettes cooked at your table.

As you can see above, the portions were not insubstantial. I plumped for kaizoku-yaki, a seafood special. The waitress arrived at the table with a huge bowl of fresh squid, oysters, shrimp, scallops and clams, topped with chopped spring onions. The whole platter sat on top of a countless number of beaten eggs. All the food was swiftly mixed together, before being expertly spread onto our table’s hot plate.

The resulting omelette was one of the most sublime meals I’ve eaten in Japan. At one inch thick and about a foot across, it was an absolute gutbuster, but the shrimp was beautifully cooked, while the soy sauce spread on the dish at the last minute shot the whole thing through with bags of flavour.

Since then, we’ve indulged in well-balanced traditional Japanese breakfasts and gobbled gorgeous noodles under the arches at Osaka JR station. The burger search can wait. And we only have to MOS Burger’s woeful fayre to thank.

 

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