July 24, 2014

Japanese Covered Bridge Pagoda Hoi An

Walking the streets of the historic town of Hoi An in central Vietnam is like stepping back in time. Vietnam can be a difficult place to visit at times; it is busy, crowded, noisy, confusing and has a tumultuous history. That being said, there is also a lot of beauty in the winding streets, old shop houses and distinguishable Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese features that have been preserved exactly for centuries. The world famous Old Town still looks and feels like it did ages ago--although many buildings have now turned into art galleries, boutique hotels and chic restaurants--and some people even liken it to a "Disneyland" type place to visit.

I wrote about the first half of my trip to Vietnam in this post that covered Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi; however, I thought Hoi An should be its own post. Hoi An is a relaxing, charming stop that shouldn't be missed on any trip to Vietnam. We didn't stop in Hue, so I can't make a comparison between the two destinations although I have heard both have their merits. 

Hoi An river

The whole town of Hoi An is considered a Unesco World Heritage site. It was previously a bustling trading post town in the 16 and 17th centuries although much of the business has now moved to Da Nang which is the only place you can fly into to get to Hoi An. The town--with a population of about 80,000--is perfect for taking some cooking classes, lying on the beach and strolling through the shops and has an almost beach or resort town feel, which is very fitting as the name translates to "peaceful meeting place." 

You can rent bikes or motorbikes from any hotel for cheap and ride around the Old Town and to the beaches. We stayed about halfway between the main beaches and the Old Town at the Sunflower Hotel. Accommodation prices are extremely reasonable everywhere in Vietnam, so even the most budget travellers can stay in three or four star hotels. This was a nice, basic hotel that also provided a shuttle into the Old Town although we walked the 10-15 minutes ourselves most of the time. 

Hoi An river street

When we got to our hotel, the desk clerk asked us how long we would be staying and said three days was the perfect amount of time to get some clothes made. The city is a mecca of tailors, sewers and clothing shops. Every step you take, a shop person is eying you up with their measuring tape for some custom-made clothes. It is a fine balance between being constantly harassed and letting people do their jobs and make money. This is the place to go if you need tailored suits, dresses or pretty much anything at reasonable prices; however, it is best to do your research beforehand when picking a place.

Hoi An boats

Hoi An

I would say I am more of a gritty traveller who likes to feel the sand in my toes, the salt in my hair and bashed and blistered feet from walking for hours on end. I generally don't go on trips to shop or buy clothes--except for the odd souvenir or the time I was freezing cold in Scotland and had to buy a sweater. Maybe one day I will be a traveler who enjoys staying at resorts, shopping for expensive things and flying first class. Or maybe I won't and continue how I am, really trying to see and experience different and sometimes not so pretty places. 

In Hoi An, you can feel alright for being a typical tourist and not a gritty "experience traveler." This particular spot in Vietnam is a little quieter to leisurely walk around, sip a coffee and do some souvenir shopping--keyword is quiet--and feel alright for being a resort town tourist. Popular attractions include the Japanese covered bridge pagoda (first photo), various museums, old houses and more clothing shops than you can shake a stick at. I wouldn't say there is a lot to do. The point is to take a breather from the rest of Vietnam for a few days and spend your days walking around, sitting in cafes, lounging by the hotel pool or beach and shopping at night. 

Of course, the food is one of the main attractions of Hoi An. There are many modern and French-inspired cafes on the riverfront and scattered throughout the Old Town, as well as many street stalls and the central market for a quick snack. When it comes to a sit down meal, the options range from fine dining to the usual cheap tourist fare. If you're scoping out a restaurant in town, the name Ms. Vy will most likely be on your radar. Restauranteur Trinh Diem Vy, also known as "Ms. Vy," owns an impressive selection of well known restaurants in Hoi An, including Morning Glory, Cargo Club, Market Kitchen and Mermaid. From other posts I have read about Hoi Ann, you could eat at only Ms. Vy's restaurants during your trip and still be satisfied with your food options.

Morning Glory Restaurant Hoi An

We went for dinner at Morning Glory on our first night and returned the next day for lunch. They serve Vietnamese dishes and street food in a beautiful two-story colonial building right in town and it is always busy. Both times we didn't have any trouble getting a table and didn't have to wait long. Ms. Vy's cuisine also focuses on the specific health properties of certain foods and during our lunch I ordered a drink to "firm up one's insides" (the photo of the bill, seen below, gave me a chuckle), which I believe contained orange juice, ginger, soda water and was a sweet thirst quencher. I can't tell you if it worked or not. The restaurant itself is named after the "morning glory" vegetable that is grown throughout Vietnam. It is apparently good to eat for stomach or bladder issues. 

Bahn Mi at Morning Glory Restaurant Hoi An

I had to try the Banh Mi sandwich consisting of a beautiful baguette (the "banh mi"), pork, herbs, pickles and pate. The sandwiches came about after French colonialism in Indochina, hence the French bread combined with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. No matter what influence the food has, it is always incredibly fresh with many flavourful herbs and condiments to accompany the dishes. The sides are all mostly simple stir fried vegetables done exceptionally well, such as this sauteed pumpkin.

At nighttime, HoiAnn is even more beautiful with lanterns lighting up the sky and streets, people milling about at bars and having long dinners. From what I saw, everything appeared quite safe. I wouldn't say it is a huge party town, but remember the emphasis on quiet? It's alright to have an evening stroll and a nightcap and then go to bed; at least, it is for me. The street vendors are out at night too and will try and coax you into buying a lantern or paper boat to "let go" on the river. They are a beautiful and peaceful sight to watch. 

Hoi An nighttime

The next night we ate at another Ms. Vy restaurant, Mermaid which is slightly more modest in decor, smaller and boasts a "family atmosphere." This was the first restaurant she opened back in 1992 and the first to serve explicitly to tourists. It is also closer to the market where the chefs source most of the ingredients. This meal was just as good if better than Morning Glory and a bit cheaper. We started with the spring rolls and a few other appetizers. 

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

Mermaid Restaurant Hoi An

For the main course I ordered what I did at Morning Glory and absolutely loved: eggplant and ground pork in a clay pot. Normally eggplant is slightly bitter and tough. This was vegetable candy with sweet pieces of pork cooked in lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies. This recipe as well as many of her restaurant favourites are in her cookbook Taste Vietnam. As well as the restaurants, she runs a successful cooking school. I would love to one day know how she makes these wonderful, simple dishes bursting with traditional Vietnamese flavour. 

Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook

Instead of taking a cooking class or a food tour, our main activity during our stay was a day trip to the My Son ruins. The My son ruins is a temple complex that was built by the Champa Kingdom to worship the Hindu God Shiva. During the Cham Dynasty, Hoi An was considered the commercial capital while My Son was the spiritual capital. The beautiful ruins, although mostly crumbling, are set in a jungle valley with picturesque mountains in the background about 45km from Hoi An. You pretty much have to go with a tour group because the buildings have no labels or information, but tours leave daily for a good price from most Hoi An hotels. 

My Son ruins Vietnam

The site used to encompass more than 70 temples and dates back to the 14th and 17th centuries. Most of the ruins were heavily damaged during the Vietnam War. There are impressive carvings, remnants of temples, sculptures and gives you a bit of insight into spiritual and political life at the time in Southeast Asia. All of the buildings were built without mortar or any agent; they are simply brick on brick. 

My Son ruins

Preservation efforts are being made, but not with any extreme haste. It is not an extreme temple trekking tour like Angkor Wat. All you need is a few hours to walk around with a guide and you'll be back in Hoi An by afternoon. What is left is a serene and quiet space of a few striking pieces of architecture. 

My Son ruins

My idol Anthony Bourdain had this to say about Vietnam in the Financial Times a few years ago: "A few years from now, I plan to live here. I will move to a small fishing village in the coastal area of Vietnam near Hoi An. I have no idea what I'm going to do there other than write about the experience. I plan only on being a visual curiosity, the lone Westerner in a Vietnamese community; to rent a house, move in with few, if any expectations and let the experience wash over me. Whatever happens, happens."   

I didn't know what to expect when I went to Vietnam. And it was near the beginning our 6-week trip to Asia before I had experienced Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Lonely Planet calls it a "nation going places." It is a vast and varied country that is fun treasure box of cultures, visual landscapes and the important part of every trip--food. 

Check out my travel adventures on Trover, a new social sharing site for travel photos. 
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July 18, 2014

barbecued corn

Summer in Ontario is a beautiful thing. There is a house down the street from my parent's house that sells sweet corn every summer from their family farm. All they do is set up a table at the end of their driveway with the corn, a simple sign and a tin for the money. During corn season, it sits there every day unattended. We are a friendly Canadian bunch or perhaps it's that trusting small town mentality. For years, we got our fresh corn this way and for years without incident, they left it outside along with the money simply wanting to share their bounty with the neighbourhood. 

Then I would bring the corn inside and my Mom would send me to sit on the back porch and peel the husks. She would then drop the cobs into a huge, stock pot of boiling water and I would wait patiently for it to cook and be placed on the table. With the steam rising and my hands tipping it back and forth to escape the heat, I would drench it in butter and bite down on each row of the bright yellow beads. 

Now that I'm living in the city, there is a different type of street food transaction called food trucks. Food trucks aren't quite so trusting as a corn stall in rural Ontario, so you have to actually order and pay them directly. I appreciate both for being an alternative to grocery stores or restaurants. I can simply walk down the street and find something interesting, fresh and local to eat. The other day I walked down to Ottawa Streat Gourmet in downtown Ottawa for a mix and match lunch of fresh gourmet proteins and salads with bread. I chose the hard-boiled egg, crispy prosciutto, pickled beans, orzo kale chorizo salad and mixed grain salad. At $11, this was a substantial and healthy lunch choice. And crispy prosciutto! Any salad is made better with bacon. I have never seen such an innovative and refreshing gourmet lunch option from a food truck before. 

Amaize Sweet Corn

Is there anything more true to summer than seasonal vegetables, browsing food markets and exploring the city through sweat and sunglasses? I like to support local when I can, but I am always open to new products and suggestions. It is neat when I get products from all over shipped to my door to review, such as this package of special sweet corn. When the FedEx guy shows up at my house and I have to sign off on a box of corn, I sigh and think, "You know you're a food blogger when..."

Amaize Sweet Corn

Amaize sweet corn is a rare variety of sweet non-GMO white corn. It is grown in limited supply in the United States and has a sweet flavour and crunchy texture. Creators George Crookham and Bruce Hobdey of Crookham have been testing and pinpointing the perfect balance of corn texture and taste for more than 22 years. Their company is the largest and oldest multi-generational family corn breeding company in the United States. In Canada, Amaize sweet corn is available at Loblaws and Park Produce stores or you can order seeds online to grow your own.

When it comes to barbecuing corn, I prefer the foil method. If you don't wrap them in foil then I suggest pre-boiling or microwaving the corn before putting them on the grill. I find cooking the corn straight on the grill doesn't quite cook it enough--unless you like really crunchy corn. My suggestion is a nice pre-cook in foil, and then unwrap it and cook directly on the grill for the last few minutes. Those crispy, charred grill marks are still a necessity for anything grilled. You can also keep the corn inside the husks instead of using foil. 

Corn on the BBQ

The toppings are straight up your choice. How's this for being a serious taste tester? I made two corns with olive oil, salt and pepper and the other two with butter and herbs. I preferred the olive oil combination, as the butter with the sweetness of the corn was a little too sweet for me. For American corn at this time of year, I would say this corn had a nice flavour to it that wasn't too overpowering. It didn't have quite the bite of moisture of Ontario corn that drips down your mouth as you eat it and gleams a gorgeous mosaic of white and yellow. I would say it was a pretty "amaize-ing" and substantial cob of corn. You know what they say about everything being bigger in America...

BBQ sweet corn

Here's a fun fact according to Wikipedia: Apparently corn is always made up of an even number of rows of kernels because they always grow in pairs. Just like you always need two hands to eat corn or two corn picks. As well as it being my first time grilling corn on the BBQ, I also tried making tofu on the BBQ. Using these tips, I pressed the tofu for about 30 minutes, cut it into slices and then marinated it in BBQ sauce for a few hours. I placed it on the grill and it survived! I had nightmare visions of saucy tofu crumbles getting everywhere. This was a magical, simple way of cooking tofu. Grill marks really make everything taste better; another reason why I love summer cooking. 

BBQ tofu

Sometimes it's nice to let someone else cook in the heat. We had dinner at the newly opened Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa's Little Italy neighbourhood. I love this city already. We've only been here a few weeks and I am already overwhelmed with food options, including food trucks. Salt has a sophisticated and relaxed atmosphere that almost makes you feel like you're sitting in a designer furniture warehouse. It's still getting it's bearings, so the vibe wasn't quite the promised lounge bar feel. The menu consists of small plates and large plates presumably for sharing. We started with an exquisite cheese board of local cheeses, crostini, candied nuts, fruit and even a yoghurt dipping sauce. It was enough cheese that the two of us were almost full after the first course. 

We then shared the "Kraken vs. Halibut" large plate. You have to appreciate the dish for the name alone. The plate was an artistic arrangement of pan seared halibut, braised octopus, chickpea puree, avocado mousse, marinated tomatoes, new potatoes, minted mushy peas and chimichurri sauce. When we were finished, the server came over and asked, "So who won? The Kraken or Halibut?" I'm still trying to decide. This was not your bad pub plate of calimari by any means. They were both succulent and meaty pieces of fish with the perfect balance of accompaniments. My public service announcement of the day is to take a few moments out of your busy summer to enjoy fresh local produce, have a nice meal out and be a tourist in your own city.

Disclosure: I received a sample of Amaize Sweet Corn for review purposes. The opinions expressed are completely my own based on my own experiences.
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July 10, 2014

Green tea latte and Green tea cake

All-you-can-eat sushi was something I only experienced when I got to university. Before that, if you can believe it, I had never tried sushi. At my first sushi dinner, my friends explained what all the different names were and I thought it was unbelievable that you ticked things off a list and all these delicious things suddenly piled up on your table. By the end of all the sushi, tempura, rolls and sashimi I was stuffed. Then someone suggested dessert. "Dessert? What kind of dessert do you get with sushi?" I asked. "Green tea ice cream!" That smooth, refreshing ice cream was unlike any tea creation I had tasted before. It was also a few years later, after many, many sushi meals, that I learned that the ice cream is actually made from matcha.

Organic Matcha Green Tea Powder

Matcha green tea powder is made from tea leaves that have been grown in the shade, which slows down the process. Matcha green tea is a little different than regular green tea, as it doesn't have that bitter tea taste. Matcha powder can be used in cooking, baking and drink making; however, it is not cheap. Luckily I received a bag for review from Kiss Me Organics and I did not pay the hefty $29 a bag price for 4oz (113g). I mean, I understand that gourmet, culinary grade ingredients, such as saffron, pine nuts and truffles, come at a high cost. You pay for the high quality and you don't use a lot, so in theory, it's that price for almost a lifetime supply.

The health benefits are like anything; you have to take them with a grain of salt. You won't get healthier or skinnier by eating green tea chocolate or milkshakes. The powder claims to give you more energy, smoother skin and helps to burn calories. Health hoopla aside (true or not) it is neat if, like me, you want to experiment with green tea desserts. And adding it to your morning smoothie will save you from buying all those expensive matcha Starbucks drinks. You can buy this Matcha Green Tea Powder on Amazon. (Learn more about Kiss Me Organics products).

Homemade Green Tea Latte

Along with the package I also received a free recipe booklet that included recipes for drinks, smoothies, sweets, dips and main courses. Did you know you can cook matcha with meats and even put it on pizza? My eyes have been opened to the possibilities of this ingredient as something that is not just trendy. The book suggests enjoying a few cups of hot matcha tea (matcha powder and hot water) to get to know the flavours and get a sense for how much to use. After a few tests, I am still working on perfecting my green tea lattes. 

For a birthday cake back in May, I decided to be adventurous--although it's more adventurous for the recipient of the cake--and make a green tea custard cake. The last time I made a green coloured dessert, it was made with avocados and I never heard the end of it. "Hey look, I made you a green cake for your birthday" could go either way. Luckily, it was a hit and I was eating it cold out of the fridge in my hands for the next few days. 

Matcha Custard Cake

Matcha Cake (recipe from raspberri cupcakes)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1-2 tbsp matcha powder (you can adjust for taste)
1/2 cup butter
2 cups milk
4 eggs, separated at room temperature
4 drops of white vinegar
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
1 tbsp water


1. Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease or line a square 8 inch baking pan.
2. Sift flour and matcha powder together in a bowl.
3. Melt the butter in the microwave and set aside. Warm the milk to lukewarm and set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whip the egg whites and vinegar to stiff peaks. Set aside.
5. In another large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until light. Mix in the butter and tablespoon of water for about 2 minutes.
6. Mix in the flour until evenly incorporated. Whisk in the milk until everything is mixed.
7. Fold in the egg whites, 1/3 at a time. Repeat until all the egg whites are folded. Keep mixing until the egg whites are incorporated.
8. Pour the batter into the baking pan and bake for 40-50 minutes or until the top is golden. Allow the cake to completely cool before cutting and dusting with icing sugar. 

Green Tea Matcha Cake

The cake had a creamy, firm custard inside with a strong, refreshing green tea taste. I would suggest adding a few drops of green food colouring to get the colour right. A little dusting of icing sugar and a sprinkling more of the matcha powder covers up any inconsistencies. If I were to buy this myself, I would have started with a much smaller and cheaper bag of powder; however, I like that it's a new "gourmet" addition to my pantry that I can use to add interesting flavours and colours to my food. 

Disclosure: I received a sample of Organic Matcha Green Tea powder for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my own experiences.
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