Island Fever

I had such a great time in Hawaii, but I’ve been insanely busy since I got back! Silly – I had an easy midterms week but the week after was crazy. I was actually supposed to go to New York this past weekend but had to cancel because of my homework. What a drag!!

Hawaii was great though. I got to see a lot of family and get a real nice tan to make all my friends in Pittsburgh super jealous.

One of the best things about Hawaii is the fruit. Every morning for breakfast I’d eat half a papaya, some mango, a kiwi or two, maybe even some mangosteen. I wish it were like that here! You can’t get much else besides apples and bananas unless you want to pay an arm and a leg. Since I was still in a bit of a tropical mood, we decided to splurge for this weekend’s breakfast.

Mango french toast. Yum. Mango isn’t just my favorite fruit – it’s my favorite food. The mangoes weren’t that great, but since you cook them it didn’t matter too much that they weren’t perfectly ripe. We also bought a loaf of freshly baked bread from the market for the occasion, and it definitely made the difference. Regular sandwich bread is not good enough for this french toast, I promise.

Mango French Toast
Original recipe here. Serves two.

Ingredients
1 mango, diced small (look at this post if you don’t know how to dice a mango)
1 tsp cornstarch
1/4 C orange juice
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla, divided
2 eggs
1/4 C milk
4 slices thick cut wheat bread

Instructions
1.
In a sauce pan over medium heat, simmer mango, corn starch, OJ, and cinnamon. Reduce to low heat and “mush” the mango a bit with a spoon.
2. Stir in maple syrup and half the vanilla and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
3. While the mango mixture cooks, prepare the toast. Heat a skillet over medium heat and spray with oil.
4. Mix together eggs, milk, and remaining vanilla in a shallow bowl (I like to use a square cake pan – the flat bottom really helps!). Dip the bread in the eggs and cook for a few minutes on each side.
5. Slice bread into halves and top with mangoes to serve.

Fly Lice

Christmas in Bangkok! By far the least Christmassy Christmas I’ve ever had. I went with one of my friends (hello, I know you’re reading) and her friend from home who was visiting. I didn’t take the same flight as them, so I got to have a fun three hours waiting at the airport by myself, but it was okay in the end. Just like Taipei, Bangkok was mostly temples, shopping, and street food, and I was okay with that.

Our first day, we wanted to go to some of the cool temples near the river. We pretty much got scammed by a tuk-tuk driver into taking a very expensive longboat instead of the public ferry, but as far as scams go, it wasn’t the end of the world. After that though, it was all ferry all the time. Definitely the coolest form of public transportation I’ve ever taken.

First stop: the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. It’s a gigantic statue of Buddha laying down, and it looks even bigger because it’s in a room barely big enough for it. Very impressive. The bottom of Buddha’s feet have a really intricate mother-of-pearl design, and the walls inside the building are painted as a huge, extremely detailed mural. After that, we went to Khao San Road and then Patpong Night Market. So much cheap shopping! Lots of cheesy souvenirs and bad knockoffs, sure, but I managed to find a few decent things. There were also plenty of food carts, so I might as well go into the street food now.

Pad thai pad thai pad thai. I think I had it three or four times, including Christmas dinner. Stir fried noodles with shrimp, egg, peanuts, sprouts, chili, lime, green onions, yum yum yum. Also satay, fresh squeezed juice, Thai tea, scrambled eggs with rice, mango sticky rice, fried bananas, red curry, green curry… We ate so many meals on the street. Pretty much everything I’ve had before, since Thai is tied with Mexican for my favorite cuisine, but obviously it was a lot cooler (and cheaper) eating Thai food in the street in Thailand than at a restaurant here in Los Angeles. What was new to me, though, was coconut pancakes. They’re not like fluffy pancakes, but rather a crunchy shell filled with cream and coconut shavings. We had those our second day, at the floating market.

We booked a day tour since everything we wanted to see that day was at least two hours outside the city. First stop was the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi. Plenty of boats and stalls were selling tourist crap, but I was way more interested in the real stuff. Little old ladies sitting in the water cutting fresh produce or handing bowls of hot noodles to people standing on the side of the canal. Definitely awesome to see. We took a boat through the market and then looped around through other parts of the canal where people actually live.

These houses were gorgeous! Sure, they were all a bit run down, but most were pretty big and almost all of them had tons of potted plants and other decorations out front. It was so beautiful. After that, we hopped back on the bus which took us to lunch.

This meal was really different than I expected. Not at all spicy like Thai food usually is – just really fresh tasting. Tons of bell peppers, onions, tofu, pineapple, cashews, and – my favorite – broccoli. Then we were off to the River Kwai Bridge, and finally, the place I was excited for most: the Tiger Temple.

It’s a conservation center run by monks. Some tigers are born there, but a lot are brought in as cubs after their mothers are killed by poachers. There were so many tigers! You wait in line for a bit, and then get two volunteers assigned to you: one holds your hand and walks you from tiger to tiger, where you sit and rub their adorable tiger bellies for a bit, and another takes pictures for you. Besides that you can walk around the rest of the center on your own. They also have other animals, like boars and deer, and you might run into a monk taking a tiger for a walk. Such an unbelievable experience.

Right near Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, which is half official government buildings, half temple, all tourist attraction. We went on Christmas day. The buildings are really beautiful, completely covered in tile and gold. They have a free tour in English a couple times a day, and we were lucky enough to get there right as one was starting. We got to learn all about what the different statues represent, the types of architecture, the function of each of the government buildings, etc. Afterward we went to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It has something like 8,000 stalls, making it the largest in southeast Asia. It’s definitely a local market – souvenirs were actually hard to find amongst all the clothes, dishes, furniture, and food. We went more just to see the market than to do any actual shopping, but I did get something amazing:

Coconut ice cream, served in the coconut it was made from, topped with red beans, sticky rice, and pineapple jelly. Merry Christmas to me.

For our last days we laid on the beach and got tans, and then just walked around a bit. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is just walk around and look at people going about their business. The sidewalks in Bangkok are overly crowded with people cooking different foods, and any alley big enough to accomodate a market is filled with stalls of fresh fruit.

Thailand was amazing. I want to go back. Maybe not Bangkok – after five days, I definitely feel like I got a sense of what the city is about – but somewhere else definitely. Just for the food.

Danshui? Tamsui?

I am in America! It’s kind of weird being back, especially with how much happened since my exams ended, but I’m adjusting. Since my last post, I went to Taiwan, Thailand, back to mainland China, and finally came home. I’ll put it all into separate posts so I don’t completely overwhelm you (or me).

So. Taiwan. I went alone, very much against my mother’s wishes. Just stayed within Taipei. Six days of nonstop temples, shopping, and eating. For the most part, it was absolutely awesome. Traveling alone is amazing – you get to do whatever you want! No waiting for anyone else or worrying about what they want to do. You just go. If you want to get up early, you do it. If your alarm goes off and you don’t want to get up, you don’t. If you want to spend an extra half hour somewhere, go for it. You never feel bad about taking a long time messing with your camera because you want to get the perfect shot.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about Taipei though. For one, I was super stoked to speak Chinese. I thought it would be six days without English for me. Not the case. See, in Beijing, when people would speak to me, if I didn’t understand they would slow down and repeat themselves. In Taipei, they just switched to English. Another thing was spelling inconsistencies. Going from Chinese characters to English letters can be complicated sometimes because there are two systems for doing it, but as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine. Taipei needs to make up its mind. Is it Taipei or Taibei? Danshui or Tamsui? Beitou or Peitou? The names of the subway stations aren’t even consistent on the maps! Maps suck too. At subway stations and tourist areas there are maps of the neighborhood, which can be helpful, except up is never north. Up isn’t even usually the direction you’re facing. Up is wherever the mapmaker felt like putting it.

I stayed in Ximending 西門町, a cute commercial area on the western side of town. I pretty much tore this place apart shopping. It’s never ending, block after block of cheap clothes, shoes, and accessories.

I visited so many temples. Longshan, Baoan, Xingtian, Guandu, and plenty of others I can’t remember the names of. A few I didn’t even plan to go to, I just happened to walk by. Considering I am so completely not religious at all, I really love temples. It’s the smell of incense, the beautiful architecture, and just the sense of quiet you get when you walk in.

Gardens, too. It was a little rainy when I was there, but I still went to my fair share of parks. That photo is from the gardens at the Shilin Official Residence, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. It’s got this huge rose garden, too. I also went to the botanical gardens, 2-28 Peace Park, and attempted hiking in Yangmingshan National Park until the rain made me quit. So many historical buildings in the city, too, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, and, of course, Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

I also went to the Danshui/Tamsui district, which is a fishing village north of Taipei. I got to walk along the water and visit their morning market, which was very cool. For the most part, markets in Taipei aren’t super touristy – sure, their are tourists, but not a lot of souvenir crap for sale. This market, though, was by far the most real I’ve ever been to. Stalls selling fresh produce, bread, meat, tea, plants, you name it. Almost everyone selling food gives out samples, so all you have to do is walk through it a couple of times and you’ve had your fill of dried fruit and cookies. One stall was even giving out tangyuan 湯圓, one of my favorite Chinese desserts.

One of the coolest things I did was bathe in the hot springs up in Beitou, north of the city. There are a bunch of resort spas where you pay a ton of money for your own private tub, but I chose instead to go to the public outdoor baths. It’s less than US$1 to get in, and it’s where all the locals go. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I was able to sneak one. Each pool is a different temperature, most of them being hot but one is ice cold. You’re supposed to go to the coolest hot one, then into the cold, then to the next hottest, back into the cold, and so on, to “balance” your body. I couldn’t handle the hottest one though – it was about 120 degrees!!

You have to wear a swimsuit, thank goodness, because I was one of only a few people there younger than 60. All the old men wear Speedos, and all the old women wear the kind of one piece swimsuits with an attached skirt that goes down to their knees. I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my bikini, especially with all of my tattoos and whatnot, but then an obvious tourist walked in and took off his shirt. His chest, arms, and shoulders had Chinese characters scattered on them, so all attention was immediately diverted to him. His tattoos did not make sense. I didn’t know all of the characters, but a lot of it was just random words.

Besides that, basically all I did was eat. Begin the food porn. In six days, I ate in restaurants only twice – street food all day, everyday. The restaurants I did go to, though, were vegetarian buffets. It’s not really a buffet because you pay by the weight of your tray, but whatever. They’re a big deal in Taipei, which made me extremely happy. So many veggies! So much tofu! Happy Alyssa!

Other than that, night markets. In five nights, I went to seven night markets. For the most part, especially in the big ones like Shilin and Shida, the shopping is just regular stores. What makes the change between regular shopping area to night market is all the food carts that come out, selling the most amazing food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Actually, right near the Shilin market is the Shilin food court. Stall after stall of noodles, seafood, these yummy egg pancake things, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, and fried chicken. Taipei loves fried chicken. Actually, out of all the stalls, only one had a line – over 50 people waiting in line for fried chicken. I decided to see what it was all about, which was a very good decision. It was just regular fried chicken until they sprinkled some sort of spice on it. Just the right amount of heat and extra flavor. Amazing.

At Shida, I saw another big crowd around a food stall. Pro tip: if you see a huge line of locals waiting in line for food, get in that line. When you get to the front of the line, they hand you a basket which you fill with noodles, fresh veggies, tofu, meatballs, whatever. You pay for whatever is in the basket, then they cook it all and you choose your sauce. I’m not sure what I chose since I didn’t understand the Chinese and ended up just pointing at one, but it was delicious. Super cheap, too.

Besides that is the night market snacks. So many carts selling fresh cut fruit; when you walk by the hand you little pieces of strawberry or mango on toothpicks hoping you’ll buy some. I ended up getting a guava one of the nights. At the Raohe market, I saw a cart selling fried crab for NT$180, or about US$6. I thought that was a little expensive for a little crab since most of my meals were around $150 max, but it looked good, so I decided to go for it. Next thing I know, the lady hands me a paper bag filled with no less than four crabs inside. I stood on the sidewalk for at least a half hour, crab all over my face and hands. That’s how you know you’re living your life right.

The desserts are great too. I had waffles with strawberry ice cream and raspberry compote one night (top left), and almost every market had these little pancake things (bottom right). Only NT$10 a piece, and they’re filled with red bean or custard. At the Jingmei market I had some fantastic shave ice. They had a huge spread of all sorts of different things: red beans, tangyuan, mochi, sweet potato, jellies, and some things I’ve never even seen before. You fill a bowl with whatever you want, and then the shave ice goes on top with some kind of syrup. I definitely recognized the flavor of the syrup, but I couldn’t think of the name at the time. I want to say it might have been tamarind, but it was awhile ago that I ate it so I’m really not sure.

That was pretty much my time in Taipei. Eating, shopping, and taking pictures. It was a great time. I would definitely recommend traveling alone, and I would love to do it again sometime.