Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Eating My Way Through Hong Kong

I love Chinese Food.

Despite Japan's proximity to China, Chinese food here is pretty atrocious. "Japanized" Chinese food is not Chinese food. Sure, it's presented nicely and looks appetizing, but the taste... it takes everything that makes Chinese food so explosive and tones it down for a Japanese palate.

I even miss Americanized Chinese food: strong, if simplified flavors, full of oil and salt. (Let's be honest--who doesn't love Panda Express?)

But growing up in California, I was blessed with access to some pretty authentic Chinese food. There are places where you are at a disadvantage for not speaking Cantonese. Or there are places where the menu is only partially translated into English (to get the good stuff, you need someone who can read Chinese). That's a sign of authenticity. 

That's the Chinese food I miss.

So I can safely say living in Japan, I haven't eaten real Chinese food in a year (Taiwan in February 2011).

This trip to Hong Kong was long overdue. 

What did I do? I ate. A lot and often. I ate when I was hungry. More often than not, I ate when I was full.

And it was fantastic. Hong Kong truly is a foodie's paradise. I'm not normally one to take pictures of food or rave about the restaurants I went to, but Hong Kong warrants an exception.

Here are some of the highlights:

Dry Beef Chow Fun (乾炒牛河)

Growing up, this was my family's staple, go-to Chinese takeout. It's the dish I missed the most, and possible to hardest to recreate/find in Japan. It was my first meal in Macau, my first meal in Hong Kong, as well as my last meal at HK airport before leaving.

Pork Ribs in Black Bean Sauce (港式點心–豆鼓排骨)

From the Michelin starred, yet extremely affordable, Tim Ho Wan (添好运点心专门店). Though I've had this dish many times in my life, this one is the best version I've ever had.

Cha Siu Bao (叉燒包)
At a market. So simple, yet amazing.

Egg Waffle (鷄蛋仔)

I don't eat sweets but damn, this was really good.

Tak Fat Beef Balls (德發牛肉丸)

This was fun--going down a dark alley, into a mostly abandoned section of a market. No tourists, no English. Wandering aimlessly. Passing other stalls trying to get us to eat at theirs. Eventually, finding our stall as written about on Openrice and in Lonely Planet. Sitting down on a greasy stool at an even greasier table. The reward: a hearty bowl of beef balls and noodles for under 30$HK (300 yen).

Potstickers (餃子)

What Japanese gyoza is derived from. Also bought off the street. I'd like to note that this is right after dinner.

Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐)

Smells so bad, yet tastes so good... you can literally smell this one from a block away. This is right after eating lunch.

Claypot Rice (煲仔飯)

I've never tried this before in my life--it's a claypot with sausage, meat, and sauce over rice. Perfect on a chilly HK night.

Disneyland Little Green Men

Only at Hong Kong Disneyland. Dim sum at the Crystal Jade Restaurant, Disneyland Resort. It was strangely satisfying to bite into these.

After this whirlwind, gastronomical tour, you'd think my craving for Chinese food would have been satiated. Or at least, partially subsided.

Nope. If anything, it made it worse.

So even if it's just an extended layover, I definitely foresee a trip to Hong Kong in my near future...

Friday, January 13, 2012

When To Sit In The Back

In the time of always trying to call shotgun, the back seat is the best in very few instances. Back of the bus? Only if you're on a school field trip. Back of a roller coaster? Only if you want a more thrilling experience. Back of a movie theatre? Only if you're with a certain someone else, and the two of you aren't really there to watch the movie...

I'm going to add another example to this list: back of a jeepney. Except in this case, there's no, "Only if." It's always better to sit in the back of a jeepney.

I noticed it the first time I rode one. We were the first ones to get on. So why did my friends sit as close to the door as possible? Doesn't it make sense to scoot all the way in, close to the driver? Aren't you getting in the way of everyone else?

Before I continue, perhaps I should explain what is a jeepney.

Not my photo... I was way too afraid of getting run over to take one. Courtesy of

It's a form of public transportation common in the Philippines. Think of it as a hybrid between a small bus and truck, except that it has no designated stops. Seating is two rows perpendicular to the driver's seat. You flag one down anywhere along its route. You shout, "Para," when you want to get off. Simple enough, right?

The first time I rode it, we got on at the start of its route, so we paid in advance. Payment while on the road, as it turns out, is a funny thing.

It's also the reason why people fill the back of the jeepney first.

My first jeepney ride. I would not be this happy my second time.

One night, we were going out to Greenbelt, a upscale mall complex in Makati. Instead of a cab, we decided to catch a jeepney since it was cheaper at about $.15 a person. We flagged down our ride and got in.

As we crawl inside, we notice it's pretty full. There aren't any seats left except for a few in the front, right behind the driver. I take my seat--driver's side in the very front.

Stupid, foreigner me.

I pay my fare. I can hand my money to the driver easily.

I suppose now is a good time to describe how payment works.

Jeepneys are cramped. You have to duck your head to get in. That also means once you sit down, you're done. There's no safe way of getting up while the jeepney is in motion. All payment goes through the driver or occasionally, a helper in the passenger seat. Money now has to get from every seated passenger to driver.

I think you know where this is going.

So to pay, you hand your money down the line. Smarter passengers will be choosy in passing on their money. Big, scary guy with tattoos right next to you or reach across him to the sweet auntie further down? She in turn will hand your money down to the next (willing) passenger further up.

At the end of this line, there are one or two unfortunate passengers who eventually have to handle everyone else's money.

On that night, it was me.

Imagine me--the only non-Filipino on the jeepney. Money being shoved into my hands. People saying things in Tagalog. Whether it's number of people, final destination, if they need change, or even a, "take my money," I have no idea. Yet, I try in desperation to mimic their words over the roar of the engine. Unknown amount of coins coming back from the driver over his shoulder. Me trying to remember who handed me the money to begin with in the darkness of the cabin. People getting off, new passengers getting on, and the process repeating...

It was the longest 10 minute ride of my life. Don't get me wrong: I think jeepneys are one of the greatest ideas to come from the Philippines. It's the cheapest public transportation I've found anywhere in the world. Although the system can be hectic, the terminology confusing, and the situation somewhat daunting, the jeepney is uniquely Filipino. If you find yourself in the Philippines, I highly recommend that you try riding one at least once--it's a cultural experience not to be missed.

Just make sure to sit in the back.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

It's Complicated

What makes the Philippines, "The Philippines?" To be honest, I'm not quite sure. I only spent about 2 weeks there. Furthermore, my travels were limited to the greater Manila area and the tourist destination of Boracay. So maybe it's no wonder why I'm still left bewildered. But ever since I left, I've been left to ponder.

Is there a distinct "Filipino Identity?" What would it be?

I guess first I'll start with something easier to answer--how was it? Simply put, amazing. How would I describe it? What was it like?

I've never been more confused in my life. 

Dirty yet clean. Loud most of the time, but peacefully quiet at others. Budget friendly, but if you have money, you can burn through it quick. A melting pot of East meets West.

When I say dirty, I mean it, but not necessarily in the negative sense. Perhaps a better word is "real." The streets of Manila are as unapologetic as it comes, which can be refreshing from the strict social order found in Japan. Yes, there are things that are actually dirty--smog and pollution being two main environmental issues. But it also means a different kind of "dirty." Street stalls and small corner stores which remind me of Latin America or other parts of Southeast Asia. You can walk down the street, sit on a plastic chair, and order some great tasting food all while wondering if this is the dish that will finally do you in and make you sick.

Chinatown--also where a No Reservations episode was filmed!

Yet, this is not the whole representation of the Philippines. It's neat and clean too. The best example is the ever-present shopping mall. I lost track of how many malls I visited within the first 2 days I was in Manila. Out of all of them, the best by far was the Mall of Asia. If you forget about the security checkpoints at each door and the relative lack of ethnic diversity of the shoppers, you would never have guessed you were in the Philippines. It could rival any upscale mall in the US.

Christmas Decorations at the Mall of Asia... well after Christmas

Budget friendly? Breakfast of spam, eggs, and rice cost us about $1.50-$2... at a touristy restaurant. Beer at a nice bar was $4-5. A couple fried fish-balls from a street vendor: $.02! But to really put it in perspective, you have to talk about the service industry in the Philippines. I've never been in a salon my entire life. I'm much more of a $15 haircut kind of guy. At the MoA, I did better than that--at a salon, try $4 with tip.

Kinda off topic, but have you ever seen so many kinds of Spam in your life?!?

How expensive can it be? At the upper end, it's the same around the world, the Philippines included. But in the Philippines, there is a step in between. After seeing the crowds of people at every mall I visited, it would seem there is a considerable middle class, and with it, a strong demand for consumer goods. And this demand is not limited to just the latest fashions or electronics. Many of the restaurants we went to were comparable in price and quality to the US. Perhaps a bit cheaper, but definitely not for the budget traveler--a dinner and drinks around $15-20 a person.

Sisig from Gerry's... with beer, there's nothing better...

Loud? Don't get me started. Incessant honking meaning everything from a, "Hey, I'm here," to a "F-you and your family." Vendors shouting at you at every turn. People trying to get you to ride their bus, their Jeepney (separate story), try their product, or just shouting to shout. It was fun, but loud. Definitely loud.

But it made the peaceful moments even more so.  Take Makati, the business district of Manila. It's a city that never sleeps. Due to the amount of 24hr call centers, many people are up at weird times. However, the incessant horns cease. The vendors have mostly closed up. It's just people hanging out on their shift break. Or a quick (kinda) flight away, Boracay. The beaches there rival the best I've ever been to in my life. The main drag is loud, full of party-ers, but a walk a few extra blocks in either direction, and the beach is practically yours.

A rare, peaceful moment in Boracay

East meets West? Trite, I know, but never truer. One of the best representations of this is the language. The Philippines is home to many languages. The majority of the population speaks a different language. But in Manila, most, if not all, signs around me at a given time was in English. But everyone around me was speaking Tagalog. The best representation--the evening news. The announcer does his/her bit in English, but when it cuts to an on-the-ground footage, the interview is conducted in Tagalog.

But what about the food? Filipino food is a mix of everything. A bit of Malaysian, Chinese, and even Spanish at times. Yet, this doesn't even cover the vast kinds of food you can find in the Philippines from other countries. Fried chicken, gravy, and rice... at McDonalds? (Or Wendy's or Jollibee or... you get it.) Or a quick breakfast of pan de sal. Or lumpia as a snack (which look an awful lot like an eggroll...). Or getting Sio Mai (Shumai) or shwarma (kebab) as a drunk food? And wake up and have spam, eggs, and rice, and do it all over?

Actually, this is better. My vote for best food in the Philippines--Crispy Lechon

What exactly is the "Filipino Identity?" A friend told me that Filipinos have taken the best bits and pieces from various cultures, whether in history from colonizers or in this modern, global society, and made it their own unique identity. And maybe that's it--there really isn't one unique "identity." It's much more complicated than that. And it's not something that can be summed up with a tweet, status update, or even a blog post.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Macau: Vegas of the East?

What makes Vegas, "Vegas?" Is it the excessive eating? The prolific gambling? Drug use? Binge drinking? Sex? Glitz and glamour in stark contrast to all the dirt and grime a few streets over?

Yes. To all of the above.

Seems promising. Look! There's even a Wynn!

So when I was told about Macau, the so called "Vegas of the East," I was intrigued. I mean, after spending a significant portion of my last quarter Senior Year in Vegas, I missed it. Not that I wanted to necessarily partake in all the immoral and illicit activities aforementioned, of course... (I actually was DD for a significant portion of my Vegas experiences), but it was more the atmosphere I missed. The freedom to do what one wants. Las Vegas is where people can, and do, lose themselves in the moment, whether for better or for worse. In essence, a true Disneyland for adults.

Macau is no Vegas.

At least the fountain at the Venetian is the same...

Don't let the similar names and brands fool you. Granted, there is still a seedy underbelly like Vegas (ex. a "sauna" offers a broader range of "special treatments" than a normal spa). But there's no drinking culture! Whether you gamble at a table or a machine, servers come by to offer you tea or water. That's it. No beer. No wine (though I heard you can still get sangria at the Lisboa). No AMFs or Long Islands. Nothing.

The only drink in my only night in Macau. Not even from a bar, but from a restaurant.

It makes sense--catering to mostly mainlanders, Macau is not attracting the whole, "what happens here, stays here," kind of crowd. It's more of a, "Gamble big, play serious, win or GTFO." You go to Macau to gamble. Maybe relax with a "lady friend" when you're done if you're into that sort of thing. And that's it. No multitude of Cirque du Soleil, magic acts, comedians, or musicals. No Fashion Show Mall, Miracle Mile or Forum Shops. And definitely no 190 Octane Fat Tuesdays with extra shots of Everclear.

 One thing that Macau has over Vegas--a rich history.

So after a quick loss on a Sic Bo table and a bit of sightseeing (the Portuguese architecture is, admittedly, quite beautiful), it was off to Hong Kong.

Note: As a fellow traveler pointed out, there are forms of entertainment in Macau (shows, clubs, etc.). It's just not on the same scale as Vegas, or even a large city. And it's not the say I wouldn't go to Macau again--I'll be back when I have a lot more money to blow.