Eating Eastern Europe

Maybe it’s because we are genetically predisposed to it, but eastern European food really agreed with us. Perhaps it’s because our favorite vegetables feature prominently (mine is mushrooms; Bob’s is potatoes.) Or maybe it’s just that good. I mean really. Look at this: Polish buffet dinner

This is mall food in Poland. I am so jealous.

European food is always served in courses, so I should go through one by one. Eastern European salads are not beds of lettuce with some cucumber and tomato on top—there are endless varieties of pickled salads, coleslaw-type salads with mayonnaise, shredded carrot salad, potato salad, and my personal favorite, beetroot salad. Yes, seriously. You can see it in the photo, wedged between the fries and the cucumber-dill salad.

Ukrainian buffet dinner

Clockwise from top left: sour cherry dumplings, potato dumplings, roasted eggplant and tomato salad, and borscht

The next course is soup, so let’s talk borscht. I got to try two types of borscht: green and red. The green one is made with sorrel and the red one is made with beets. Borscht is not Russian in origin, but Ukrainian, and each country in the region seems to have their own variation.

Of course there are more soups: one Belarusian woman I met told me that her mother cooks soup every day. We tried solyanka, rasonyik, tomato cabbage soup, chicken soup…. All were good, but my favorite was rasonyik, made with pork, barley, potatoes, carrot, onion, and cucumber pickles.

Main dishes tend to be meat- or fish-based. When we stayed at Lake Baikal, we ate grilled fish every day, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Russia doesn’t do seafood, and I didn’t find the meat dishes very exciting (hamburg steak, grilled chicken, etc.) so when possible, I opted for dumplings or just stuck to soup, salad, and bread. Bob is still disappointed he never found a restaurant serving beef stroganoff. In northwestern Ukraine and southern Poland, though, things were better; we really enjoyed Galician chicken pot pie and bigos. When cooking at home, we usually went to the supermarket and picked out a few random kielbasa. We were never disappointed.

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

The dumplings were probably my favorite part. Russian dumplings are filled with meat and are called pelmeni. Ukrainian dumplings are filled with vegetables or fruit and are called vareniki. The designation doesn’t mean much; both types are available in both countries. In Poland, all dumplings are called pierogi and come with many different fillings. “Russian” pierogis are filled with cheese, potato, and onion. The funny thing is that in Russia, that combination would definitely not be regarded as Russian. When serving dumplings, don’t forget plenty of butter and sour cream.  The savory ones are more well-known in the US, so the fruit-filled ones were a delicious surprise. Sweet dumplings are usually filled with sour cherries, but we were lucky enough to visit during blueberry season. The berries were tiny and the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.   Blueberry dumplings in Poland In a slightly upscale restaurant, I had them with a white chocolate sauce and powdered sugar, but at home, we ate them with sour cream and coarse granulated sugar. Heaven.Blueberry dumplings in Ukraine

When it comes to sweets, you only need one word in Russia: bliny. In two weeks, we visited a bliny chain called Teremok a total of five times. They do savory blinys too—mushrooms and sour cream is my favorite—but the sweet ones are really, really good. The best ones: apricot and tovorog (a kind of Russian sweet cottage cheese) or mixed berry. Teremok bliny

In one restaurant in Ukraine, we had something that was called baked bliny:

Baked bliny, Ukraine

Yes, that's more sour cream

Being of central and eastern European descent myself, a lot of these dishes were familiar to me. My ancestors all immigrated to the States over 100 years ago, so I’m not particularly close to any European traditions, but when it comes to food, I guess old habits die hard. The flavors and ingredients were very similar to the cuisine my mom cooked when I was growing up. It’s the kind of food that isn’t often served in restaurants—it’s not haute cuisine—but in the home, it really shines. Thanks to couchsurfing, we enjoyed several home-cooked meals while in the region. Our Ukrainian hosts took us to meet their grandparents, who welcomed us like their own grandchildren and stuffed us silly with great food. Since it was just an informal meal at home, they didn’t serve courses, but rather just laid everything out on the table and told us to eat up. In this photo, Bob is reaching for a crepe-like roll that’s filled with chopped mushrooms. It’s eaten with a mushroom cream sauce. For eastern Europeans, there is no such thing as too many mushrooms.Lunch is Ukraine

The potato-looking things on the center top are actually potato dumplings—kind of like gnocchi but much bigger. They’re filled with cottage cheese and can also be eaten with a cream sauce. Our couchsurfing host told us that this was one of her most favorite foods, so her grandma always makes it when she comes to visit. This spread is nothing, by the way; this was just lunch. Apparently, on Christmas Eve, they do a twelve-course dinner.

Eastern Europe is not generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations, but if you come with a big appetite and a liking for dairy products, they will never let you leave hungry.

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Trans-Mongolian Railway, Part 4: Tomsk to Yekaterinburg

…Wherein we venture into the world of third-class Russian trains. Will we be drugged, stabbed in our sleep, or asked to traffic Russian nesting dolls? Hopefully this does not turn out like the Woody Harrelson movie

From Beijing to Tomsk, we traveled second class, but from Tomsk afterward we had only purchased third-class tickets. Known as platskartny in Russian, these carriages were very similar to the overnight trains we took in China. One wagon can hold 54 people, partitioned into nine groups of six.

Third class carriage on a Russian train Along one wall are bays containing four beds and a table. It looks a lot like second class, but without the door. Along the other wall are the lateral berths, meaning they are parallel to the aisle. The lower bed can fold into a table during the day. These are the least popular berths because they afford zero privacy. Passengers who sleep here often complain about being woken up whenever anyone walks by (because their heads are about six inches away from the aisle.) On Russian Railways’ website, it’s possible to choose your own berth, but since we booked our tickets only about one or two weeks in advance, pretty much only the lateral berths were available. (We were traveling in summer- what are you gonna do?) Personally, though, I liked these berths. They are perfect for couples.

The Lonely Planet Trans-Siberian guidebook makes it sound like the train ride is just one nonstop vodka-fueled party. Maybe if you end up in a compartment with a bunch of soldiers, that’s possible, but most passengers were calm and quiet. The majority seemed to be women traveling alone, young couples, and the occasional family. There are so many people in platskartny that no one makes small talk. People tend to keep to themselves. Upon realizing that we were foreigners, one or two women tried to chat with us, but Bob’s Russian skills are very limited (and mine non-existent.) We told them our names and where we were going, and they the same, and that was that.

Lunchtime on the Trans-MongolianThe ride from Tomsk to Yekaterinburg is about thirty-six hours, the same as our past three rides. We did try the dining car on our first ride, but found that there’s not much available and it’s pretty overpriced, anyway. So we self-cater for all of our train journeys, which is what the Russian passengers do too. The supermarket situation in Tomsk was much better than in Irkutsk, and we were able to stock up on various interesting instant meals. I tried a cup of instant borscht.

The Russians tend to eat more picnic-style food, which always includes bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, sausage, and sometimes cheese and boiled eggs. I’m getting pretty sick of Cup Noodle, so I think from the next train ride, we’re going to shift to healthier fare. If you don’t have eating utensils, your provodnitsa can lend cutlery and mugs, featuring interesting Soviet designs:  Russian Railways mug

And if you need to buy more food, that can be taken care of at any large station. As we move west, the platform-food situation has improved immensely. In addition to sodas and potato chips, vendors also sell the local specialties, which in this town was dried fish (see the woman in the back, holding some in her left arm.)

Siberian train platform

You might think that the scenery would be getting boring by now. Really, it’s not. Besides the forests and meadows, there are small villages, big cities, and many branch lines, many of which go to still-closed cities. During WWII, when the fate of Moscow and St. Petersburg hung in the balance, all Russian factories and important research facilities were moved east of the Ural mountains. The area remains very industrial. Mining is also very big out here. While most of the scenery is still unspoiled, there are many more indicators of human presence as we move west. Most interesting to me are the Russian graveyards, which are always tucked into the trees.

Russian graveyard

About twelve hours after departure from Tomsk, we were passing through the ubiquitous birch forests when I noticed some snow on the ground. Okay, it wasn’t snow; we’re not that far north. But it looked like snow. It was actually a cloud layer, very close to the ground. I have no idea what caused this effect, but it was beautiful.

Siberian sunset

We are far enough north that the sun sets incredibly late. It’s been two weeks since summer solstice, so the days are actually getting shorter already, but I took this picture around midnight.

Sunset at midnight

It’s a trying journey. At times, I’m frustrated with Russian Railways, get tired of eating instant noodles, or feel desperately in need of a shower. But even after nearly 150 hours on the train, I’m definitely not bored.

Eating China

I couldn’t write about China without writing a post about food, now could I?

Chinese food in China is a world away from the Americanized version. The food we get in the States is usually Cantonese food, and it’s not even good Cantonese food. I don’t want to become one of those people who always compares American restaurants with their foreign counterparts. I find it snobby, to be honest… “This pizza tastes nothing like the pizza in Italy.” But let’s be honest. Most American Chinese food is bland and greasy. I’ve been to a couple of good restaurants, but a whole lot of subpar ones. Compared to anything, it doesn’t stack up well. Just ask my friend Katie about the stir-fried hot dog incident.

Keeping that image in your mind, take a look at these Yunnanese mashed potatoes. Which would you rather eat? IMG_0019

Inside China, Yunnan province is well known for having spicy cuisine. Also, as I previously mentioned, it’s subtropical, which is reflected in the ingredients. Some favorite dishes of ours: stir-fried beef with cumin, served on a bed of fried mint leaves; stir-fried tea tree mushrooms, and the aforementioned mashed potatoes.

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Hmm... we accidentally ordered too much

It may sound like a lot of fried food. A typical Chinese meal includes a selection of stir-fried dishes, a soup, steamed rice, and usually beer. Everything is eaten from communal dishes, so mealtimes in China are sad for solo travelers.

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There are always noodle soups, though–popular among busy people at lunchtime and students at anytime. Cheap and always served in individual portions.  In most of China, these are wheat noodles, but in Yunnan, rice noodles are the specialty.

Sichuan province is also well known for its spicy food, both inside and outside of China. However, it’s a different kind of hotness- the Sichuan peppercorn is often called “numbing-hot,” because it numbs the tastebuds. It is sometimes crushed and sprinkled on top of a dish, but sometimes added whole. The first time Bob accidentally bit into a whole one, he said his mouth was vibrating. When I assured him that was normal, he thought for a minute, and then said it felt like tasting all flavors at once.

Our favorite Sichuan dish was mapo tofu, which we managed to eat five times in one week. For the uninitiated: it consists of tofu, ground pork or beef, and leeks; seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine, stir-fried in chili oil, and garnished with Sichuan peppercorn. At Chen’s Mapo Tofu (the original restaurant in Chengdu serving mapo tofu,) it arrives at your table sizzling, in an iron claypot.  IMG_0639

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Eating jiaozi with some new friends

For breakfast nearly every day, we ate steamed dumplings (jiaozi) or steamed buns (baozi), usually stuffed with ground pork and chives. A bowl of rice or millet porridge rounds out the meal. A few times, we had deep-fried dough sticks (like churros) which are served with fresh soy milk and sugar. You’re supposed to dissolve the sugar in the soy milk and dip the dough sticks in, but I preferred to dip them first in the milk, and then in the sugar. It had a nicer texture.

IMG_1112On arrival in every city, one of the first things we did was to scout out breakfast joints. In Xi’an, we happened upon a place with a fantastic range of steamed buns. There must have been at least twenty different types of fillings: spinach and garlic, spicy potato, etc. My favorite one was filled with mapo tofu- what an excellent idea!

In touristy areas, the food quality often suffers, but Xi’an had surprisingly good food. One of the local specialties is biang biang mian, which is a noodle soup of extra-wide wheat noodles in a spicy broth, along with cabbage, beef, and chives.IMG_1113

It’s also written with the most complicated character I’ve ever seen: IMG_1322In Beijing, I continued my tradition of taking cooking classes (I’ve taken them in six countries now!) By this time, we had some visitors: my mom and her friend Liz had flown out to meet us. Together, the four of us learned how to properly wield a cleaver and stir-fry in a wok.

Under the tutelage of the brother-sisters trio at Hutong Cuisine, we made four dishes, including stir-fried cumin beef, spare ribs with black bean and chili sauce, dan dan noodles (with handmade noodles!) and of course, mapo tofu. If I may say so, Bob’s mapo tofu was just as good as Chen’s… maybe better.

So I apologize in advance, for when I get back to the States, I won’t be able to order Chinese takeout. I’m going to be one of those annoying people. The food in China is really so much better than the Chinese food in America. I’ll just have to cook it myself.

Southeast Asia: Three Favorite Things

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I wouldn’t say that we’ve been *everywhere* in Southeast Asia, but over four separate visits, totaling five months spent in the region, we’ve seen and done a lot. At this point, we’ve been to nearly every Southeast Asian country (we’re only missing Brunei and East Timor.) So what did we like the best?

Three Favorite Cities

  1. Luang Prabang (Laos)
  2. Chiang Mai (Thailand)
  3. Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Each of these cities has a laid-back, fun-loving atmosphere, and days spent here flew by. We tend towards the smaller cities; Bangkok and Jakarta are not among our favorites (though we love Kuala Lumpur and would choose that as number four.)

The Luang Prabang main drag

Three Favorite Places for Neat Architecture

  1. Bali (Indonesia)
  2. Singapore
  3. Yangon (Myanmar)

Balinese traditional architecture is a blend of different styles, and it is like nothing else in the world. I particularly admired the Hindu temples on Bali, but ordinary courtyard houses were also beautiful. Both Singapore and Yangon have some fabulous old British colonial buildings, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and (in Singapore) Malay-style architecture. The different neighborhoods were fascinating to walk around.

An old British building overlooking People's Park in Yangon

Ruins of the historical center of Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand

Three Favorite Attractions

  1. Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  2. Bagan (Myanmar)
  3. The old city of Sukhothai (Thailand)

Hmmm… these all turned out to be sites of ancient ruins. I guess you can tell where our interests lie?

Three Favorite Experiences

  1. Snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands (Malaysia)  The most fish I have ever seen in one place… plus turtles and sharks.
  2. Watching a water-puppet show (Hanoi, Vietnam)  So what if it’s touristy? It’s a really cool show.
  3. Touching a tiger (Chiang Mai, Thailand)  Do I have to explain the appeal of this one?

    Awww!

Three Favorite Foods

  1. Pad thai (Thailand)
  2. Adobo (Philippines)
  3. Banh mi (Vietnam; similar ones in Laos)

We tried making adobo when we got home... it was good, but not as good as on Boracay Island

Pad thai may be an obvious choice, but we never ever got tired of eating it. In the Philippines, each adobo we tried was better than the last. I don’t know how they do it. I asked one waitress about her restaurant’s version; she just shrugged and said “It’s Filipino food.” Which explains… nothing.

Runner-up: Roti canai (Malaysia and Singapore), which we ate for breakfast nearly every day in those countries.

Three Favorite Drinks

  1. Teh tarik (Malaysia, Singapore)
  2. Local coffee, sweetened with condensed milk (Vietnam, Laos)
  3. Watermelon shakes (anywhere there are backpackers)

Teh tarik… how can I explain teh tarik? It tastes like plain ol’ black tea with sugar and lots of milk (think Japanese milk tea) but the process of making it is special. Before serving, it is poured back and forth between two glasses several times, which makes the top nice and frothy, and in my opinion, makes the drink creamier.

Breakfast of champions: roti canai and teh tarik

Eating Laos

Laos is another country whose national cuisine I knew very little about. Everywhere in Southeast Asia has fantastic food, which I can’t stop writing about, but Laos was a real treat for us. With Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other, how could you not come up with some good eats? And as a bonus, their drinks are as good as the food. Lao coffee, with a bit of sweetened condensed milk, tastes so chocolatey that I wondered if they had added some cocoa powder. And Beerlao is the best beer in Southeast Asia.

We were happy to discover that for breakfast, baguette sandwiches (similar to banh mi) are popular items.

One of these plus Lao coffee equals perfect breakfast

Bob looks sad here, possibly because he knows he can't get this at home?

Luang Prabang and Vientiane have the most variety and best quality of food, and of the two we preferred Luang Prabang. It was a little cheaper, and the atmosphere was so pleasant and relaxed.

Our favorite restaurant was Coconut Garden. The nem tadieu, a mint and pickled pork salad, was amazing (but comes with a lot of peanuts on the side, FYI) and so were the deep-fried stuffed bamboo shoots. One specialty of the area is Mekong river weed, which I know sounds a little weird but it is DELICIOUS. It’s dried and seasoned, then fried and served in sheets. It was a more awesome version of Korean nori… which I didn’t think could exist.

I’ve taken cooking classes on my own in Indonesia and Thailand, but this time I convinced Bob to join me. We went to Tamnak Lao restaurant, which also runs a cooking school. The day started with a stir-fried dish that I have forgotten the name of, and a Luang Prabang salad.

Luang Prabang salad

Then we had a choice for our final three dishes. We selected stir-fried pork and eggplant, stir-fried rice vermicelli noodles, and chicken larb.

Chicken larb/ larp/ laab/ laap

Larb is also spelled laab, laap or larp- I wish these kinds of things would be standardized. Also found in Thai cuisine, it’s a cold salad made of minced meat or tofu, shallots, garlic, and lots and lots of mint. A Laotian twist is to add banana flower, for texture. True to their name, banana flowers come from banana trees and as far as I can tell, they are nigh impossible to obtain in temperate climates. It didn’t have much flavor but it added a nice crunchy texture. Our instructor suggested when making this dish at home, we could try adding bulgur. I thought that the minced white parts of Napa cabbage might also work well.

Food is always served with chili paste, known as jeowbong, and either steamed or sticky rice (the latter is more common.) One Lao guy told us that that was because sticky rice makes you feel fuller than steamed rice does. I had a fork and spoon on this particular day, but traditionally the Laotians eat with their hands. The sticky rice can be made into small balls and dipped into the chili paste, or you can hold the ball between your fingers while you grab some pieces of meat or vegetables. Many Lao dishes don’t have chilies, so diners use the jeowbong to add as much or as little heat as they like.

Our Lao dinner: stir-fried pork and eggplant, jeowbong, and sticky rice

On the whole, my impression of Lao food was that, even more than its neighbors, it is heavy on herbs (especially basil, mint, and cilantro.) The stir-fries and salads reminded me a lot of Thai food, and the noodle soups and baguette sandwiches of Vietnamese food, but the snacks and other soups were pretty different. Jeowbong, too, is unique to Laos, and comes in many different varieties (probably as many as there are cooks!) Also, I’ve never eaten so much sticky rice in my life. I ate it in other Southeast Asian countries too, but its use is much more limited.

Next time: we delve even further into Lao food, by having a picnic in the forest….

Top Five Reasons We Love Malaysia

Yes, we went back to Malaysia! We had to get a couple of visas- the infamous Russian visa, as well as one for Myanmar. We were hoping to get the Russian one in Singapore, but no dice (we were too early to be applying.) Then we had hoped to pick up our Myanmar visa in Phnom Penh, but the embassy staff told us it would take fourteen working days. I asked them if there wasn’t anything they could do- we’d already bought our plane ticket! They said perhaps they could get it done in ten working days, but we didn’t have that much time left in Cambodia.

So we phoned up the embassy in Malaysia (God bless Skype) and they told us we could get it in five days, or three if we wanted to pay a little more. We had to rearrange our flights a little bit, and lost about a week in Myanmar, but oh well. Lesson learned. Always call the embassy first.

In the end, we spent an extra two and a half weeks in Malaysia, gathering our visas. But it’s not so bad really. If we have to be stuck somewhere, Malaysia’s not bad. It’s one of our favorite destinations, actually. Here’s why:

  1. (Almost) no language barrier. English is one of the official languages of Malaysia and everyone studies it in school. Moreover, since Malaysia is home to ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as Malays, English is the lingua franca. I met an American guy on the subway whose wife is a lecturer at a Malaysian university, and he told me that all tertiary education is conducted in English. These people are seriously good at English, which makes getting around a breeze. It’s also really easy to meet locals, and have good conversations, unlike, say, Thailand, where it’s hard to chat with anyone who’s not selling you something.
  2. Fabulous beaches.

    It's also a nice place to drink fresh watermelon juice by the water

    The Perhentian Islands have the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to the other east coast beaches, but Pulau Redang looks just like the Perhentians. During the filming of the movie South Pacific, what island was used as Bali Hai? That’s right- a Malaysian island, Pulau Tioman. There is also some really fantastic diving and snorkeling. We liked the snorkeling around the Perhentians, but I’ve heard that Borneo (Pulau Sipadan) is even better.

  3. Melting pot of history and culture.Malaysia, due to its strategic location between China and India, has always been a meeting place for different peoples. Nowadays its population is made up of several different groups: the aboriginal inhabitants of Malaysia, the majority ethnic Malays, and ethnic Chinese and Indian groups. During the British colonial period, the authorities encouraged immigration from China and India- that’s why today Malaysia and Singapore have the ethnic makeup they do. One city, Melaka, was actually a colony of Portugal and Holland before it was part of British Malaya. More recently, the Japanese controlled Malaysia for a few years during WWII. It’s almost

    Shophouses line a street; Georgetown, Penang

    like Southeast Asia in a nutshell: it’s a great place to learn about the history of Southeast Asia, visit mosques as well as Hindu and Chinese temples, and see old colonial buildings. It’s also possible, in Malaysian Borneo or in Taman Negara, to visit indigenous settlements.

  4. FANTASTIC food. Piggybacking off of number three… all this diversity makes for amazingly varied food scene. As if three cuisines weren’t enough, many Chinese and Indian residents have been in Malaysia for several generations, so there is now also fusion food: Indian-Malay fusion is known as Mamak style and Chinese-Malay fusion is known as Baba-Nyonya style. Penang is especially famous for its Baba-Nyonya food (and the whole city of Georgetown is a World Heritage site, to boot.) During our ten days in Kuala Lumpur, we usually ate Indian food for breakfast, Malaysian food for lunch, and Chinese food for dinner. YUM…and if you crave something different, KL also has really good international restaurants.

    How about Chinese tonight?

  5. Easy on the wallet. The cost of living in Malaysia is a little higher than some of the Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar) but it’s a good bit lower than the US, Europe, or East Asia. Yet the standard of living is high-the highest in Southeast Asia, after Singapore.  Even staying in a guesthouse and eating out three times a day, our daily baseline budget was about $15 per person. Of course you can stay in resort or fancy hotel chains, but even these come at a cheaper rate than in Western countries. It’s also one of the most affordable places to get a scuba certification. Whatever your fancy, the important thing to know is that you can live it up without cringing at your bank statement afterwards.