Tag Archives: food

Myanmar/Burma 101 – travel info June/July 2012

Myanmar, or Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi still dares to call it, is changing. Fast. This country is at last beginning to open up, with NLD offices apparent in every town we’ve passed through in our three weeks here, not to mention a willingness to openly talk about The Lady herself. Hell, we even drove past the airport the day she returned to Yangon from her European tour and the streets were lined with flag-waving supporters.

For all that, Myanmar remains desperately poor and is lagging way behind the rest of South East Asia. Yangon’s streets are filthy and its people seem abandoned by a regime that’s moved lock, stock and barrel to the fantasy capital Nay Pyi Taw, a couple of hundred miles north.

In the six months since the most recent Lonely Planet Myanmar guide was published, it seems much has changed on the ground for tourists too. So, I thought I’d provide a quick snapshot of what to expect if you’re planning a trip here in the coming weeks. Doubtless, much of this will change as the pace of opening up to the wider world continues, but hopefully it’ll be of some assistance if your Myanmar jaunt is imminent.
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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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Best burger in Japan – the search begins

Despite (or perhaps because of) our recent dabbling at the more extreme end of Japanese cuisine, Keeley and I have begun the search for Tokyo’s (and Japan’s) best burger. Ably abetted by our good friends James, Joe and Tom, over in Japan for a holiday, we have spent the past few days traipsing the streets of one of the world’s biggest cities in search of the kind of sustenance only a slab of ground meat in a bap can provide.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Having pumped 300 yen into a web connected PC in a Ginza department store and checked out Time Out’s authoritative Tokyo burger round up, as well as Metropolis’s wide-ranging guide, we set out for Burger 5, a small joint near Ginza station.

Address and map in hand, we struck out. And promptly got lost. Having gabbled a request for directions at staff manning a department store entrance, we were pointed in the right direction by a bridal suite manager, fetched to help thanks to his impressive English. Two hours after we’d scanned the web, we arrived at our destination. Only to be given ‘X factor arms’ by a restaurant proprietor, signalling Burger 5 was no more. Hungry and deflated, we postponed the search.

The next day, however, yielded impressive results. Having taken the Keio line out to Kichijoji to visit the Ghibli Museum, we stumbled across Village Vanguard. An American-themed burger bar, cranking out Beatles hits, it was the perfect find. Not mentioned in any Tokyo burger round-ups, this was a place worth missing breakfast for. Avocado burgers the size of a human head, chili dog burgers to overwhelm even the biggest of meat fanatics and stacks of US craft beers to guzzle on. At 1100 yen a burger, Village Vanguard was a steal too.

But by no means is the search over. We might have left Tokyo for a few weeks, but we’ll be hounding out more meat treats in Osaka and Hiroshima, before returning to the capital and seeing if we can find a place that serves up a burger better than Village Vanguard. Wherever that is, it has a lot to live up to.

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Deep-fried frog and other Japanese delicacies

My Japanese is, quite frankly, appalling. I can manage hello and thank you, but beyond that I’m a mass of confusion when confronted with signs at subway stations or speed-talking waiters. Thankfully, my girlfriend Keeley went to the trouble of doing a language exchange with a Japanese student in London last year. Ordering coffee and asking where the nearest (heated) toilet is doesn’t faze her.

But even her impressive attempts at the local language left her stumped when we went to Hambe, a basement restaurant near Ueno station, where the menus were all in Kanji. We were taken there by Mizuki, Kee’s language exchange friend who’s now moved back to Tokyo. It was his choice and was an absolute winner.

We’d been told to expect ‘Japanese pub food’. What we got was an incredible time-warp feast. See, Hambe’s menu is themed on post-war Japan, its walls bedecked in classic original ads and posters from the 50s. Having given Mizuki cart blanche to order whatever took his fancy, we were treated to an array of bizarre and delicious dishes. I’ll admit I was stumped when the corned beef arrived, but was fully on board when what we believe to be deep-fried sparrow landed on the table. By the time the crunchy frog (pictured above with me pre-eating) was served, I realised this was a culinary experience we could never have had had Keeley not made the effort with the language while I blithely flicked through guide books.

This wasn’t just off kilter cuisine though. Mizuki also ordered Taka-Yaki, deep-fried octopus balls from Hiroshima, as well as Yakitori, grilled meat from Osaka, as well as cardamom infused monja cabbage. This was all washed down with a strong plum liquor on the rocks and plentiful glasses of Japanese beer. 

What did Hambe teach me? I really need to give the Japanese phrase book buried in my bag more attention. And that eating frogs whole is a beautiful thing.


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