Tag Archives: travel

A mini-honeymoon in Amsterdam

I always thought that a proper honeymoon was supposed to involve beaches and sleeping in a lot. But then I also thought that weddings were supposed to involve big, white dresses, ice sculptures of swans, and family rows, and I knew we weren’t having any of that either, so why sign up for a stereotypical honeymoon? Amsterdam seemed interesting, was quick to fly to, and neither of us had been there – oh, and it was possible we might find something good to eat, even if it was just classic Old World bread and cheese. So, done.

As it turned out there was plenty of good stuff to eat. The Time Out guidebook offered an enticing hint: that there were substantial snacks to be had, so that you wouldn’t starve between meals. One dilemma was that I have really been trying to lose a bit of weight. One the one hand we were on holiday so a bit of indulgence seemed OK, but on the other I did find myself making mental notes of calories consumed versus hours walked. And walk we did, until our feet hurt, although lot of that walking involved tracking down recommended food stops. Well, that is who I am.

Houses on the edge of the Vondelpark. You know you want to live there.

Tuesday evening, after getting settled in our hotel and having a quick wander in the Vondelpark, we hopped a tram to the Pijp, where efforts at upward mobility clashed gently with bohemian coffeehouse and immigrant cultures. This was evident in stoned graffiti on building-site plywood – for example, “A city sodomized by tentacles of distrust” – across from a pedestrian-only block filled with a variety of relaxed natives and tourists scattered amongst sidewalk cafés. Here, we learned our first bit of food-Dutch: Vlaamse friet, or Belgian (Flemish) fries, on offer alongside falafel. Yes, please. The menu had a bit of Hebrew on it, so I asked the guy in front of us if it was an Israeli shop; he told us most of the falafel shops in Amsterdam were run by Indians and, sure enough, some of the salads in the falafel bar had a touch of cumin and coriander seed, not what you’d find in Tel Aviv. Good though. More difficult to figure out was the long list of friet toppings; I picked the one that seemed most likely to be mayo, and it was. A satisfying snack indeed; we never got around to dinner that night, but after much walking we did succumb in the hotel bar to a (bad) slice of ‘New York’ cheesecake, which they seemed a bit too eager to get rid of.

Typical shop in the Pijp.

Breakfast was not included in our hotel package, for which I was thankful; I tend to eat too much mediocre food, just because it’s there, blowing my calories much too early in the day. We noted a cheese shop near to the hotel with an offer of belegte broodje met koffie, filled rolls and coffee. What more do you need, really? I chickened out and ordered in English, though, too scared of making a mistake. The choices were old, young and mild cheese; we got a young and an old, and I’m afraid I didn’t write down the names. The coffee, by the way, although obviously not the focus of the shop, was spot on, as would be each of the subsequent cups we drank in Amsterdam. How do they do that?

We had a good chunk of time that morning to explore the city centre, the Dam (main square), the red light district (how could I not? I’m a public health professional after all) and the Oude Kerk, the old church – right smack in the middle of the red light district, and there’s even a statue of a sex worker on the grounds. A classy little bakery with pretty sweets and really good bread was a few steps away, and we stopped in for an almond-curl biscuit, amandelkrull – I got an approving nod from the baker for sounding out the word correctly. Result! OK, that was an easy one. How about koekje? Am I right in guessing that this should be pronounced, approximately, ‘cookie’? We didn’t spend as much time in patisseries scrutinising the koekjes as we should have. Given that each cup of coffee was accompanied by a different one, I suspect that there is a whole new world out there. Anyway, here’s a pic of the window of the bakery in the red-light district:

Let's call it Munchies Bakery, since I can't remember what it was really called.

While we shared our amandelkrull and drank coffee, a young American guy came in. The proprietor threw a wry, knowing (but not unkind) glance to his assistant that said ‘You want to take this one?’ American guy proceeded to order, rather passionately, a brownie and a slice of carrot cake, at 11 am. It seems the many cannabis coffeeshops in the area are good for business.

That afternoon, after a light, leisurely lunch back in the Vondelpark – it’s so easy to get around! – with a friend and her lovely twin babbies, we braved threatening skies and headed over to the Jewish History Museum. We walked via the somewhat disappointing flower market – mostly tourist souvenirs, at this point, and to be honest (eek, don’t hate me!) I don’t even like tulips all that much. But if I lived there, I might pick up a few perennials. Amazingly, though cannabis seeds were on sale everywhere, I don’t believe I saw any growing, anywhere. (Perhaps it’s grown indoors? I ask purely out of theoretical interest, honest.)

One thing we knew we wanted to try in Amsterdam was Indonesian food, which seems to take the place of Britain’s Indian restaurants, since Indonesia was for a long time a Dutch colony. Our friend referred us to Orient, a family-run business near the famous Concertgebouw and the big art museums. Wednesday was buffet night, which made it easy to try many dishes – the equivalent of a rijstaffel? I managed not to overeat, but I could have done quite happily.

Bloemenmarkt

We shared a fabulously buttery almond croissant, nabbed earlier in the day, on the way back to the hotel. Perfect.

Thursday morning rained buckets on Amsterdam, so it was a good day to hit the museums, but first, breakfast. We had to try Bagels and Beans, if only because it looked like an inviting place for a sit-down. The menu was great, the coffee was again lovely, and some American students were happy to share the shop’s wifi password with us. The only disappointment with the breakfast was, I’m afraid, with the bagels themselves. They lacked that boiled, chewy quality and were somehow a bit crumbly.

Never mind; we survived, and were fed, and braved the queues for the Rijksmuseum. Delftware, check; Old Masters, check (except for the Vermeers, which were in The Hague); celebration of faded imperial glory, check. Truly, though, we love old Rembrandt – he’s a Master for good reason – and it was exciting to experience his work in person.

For lunch Thursday we wandered around the canals in search of a recommended sandwich shop. The wander was worthwhile in itself, but when we got to the shop, there was truly nothing on the long, mostly meat menu I really wanted, and the bread was only just meh.

A Delft violin, with strings and all. I can only imagine it sounds pretty weird.

Andrew bought one and I abstemiously settled on tangy frozen yogurt with berries, in preparation for the inevitable afternoon attack of the friet. We sneakily borrowed a seat outside the yogurt shop where I made myself available to help Andrew consume the biggest, sloppiest sandwich we’d ever seen, a takeaway item that really should have come with its own table, plate, cutlery and napkins.

Which brings me to the topic of mayonnaise. I love the stuff, but not as much as the Dutch do. It’s everywhere! The supermarket deli/ready-meal section we visited had shelves and shelves of mostly mayo salads and sandwiches. As noted above it’s the default topping for friet. Where do they put it all? Why are Amsterdammers not fat? I can only assume it’s because they cycle everywhere.

I found something better than mayo, or even ketchup (another Indonesian word!), for friet. After circling back around to the Portuguese synagogue, which we hadn’t fit in the day before, I did indeed get drawn in by the ubiquitous friet. This time, though, on a hunch, I asked if one of the sauces on offer was peanut-flavoured and, sure enough, I got satay, a rich, dark, sweetish, slightly spicy sauce that was better than those particular friet to be honest.

I wish I’d gotten a larger portion, but it was just as well I didn’t, as dinner – tapas, at Sal Gorda, not far from our hotel – was very filling indeed (the restaurant is much prettier than the website). And even though my Dutch is nonexistent, our lovely waiter was only too happy to speak Spanish! We had the classics here: marinated anchovies, Merguez sausage, a big bowl of olives, patatas bravas (with more mayo, natch), shrimp in garlic sauce, and more. As it was still light, I forgot it was 9 pm and ordered a cappuccino (just to go wash down the crema Catalana of course); amazingly, it didn’t keep me awake.

Friday morning – our last morning – was again rainy, and we breakfasted at Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain that’s really very good, though I did find myself wondering if there was a seamy underbelly. They sell beautiful sourdough loaves, but when I asked the waiter if he’d had a chance to make them, he admitted that the loaves are prepared and shaped elsewhere, and only baked in the local shop. Fair enough…I suppose. It is a chain after all.

We weren’t sure these were the loaves we wanted to bring home, though, so we poked our heads in a few shops in this (very posh) neighbourhood and ended up in an organic grocery, where we bought a sourdough nut loaf and some young geitekaas (goats’ cheese), having previously bought some aged geitekaas, quite different, at a shop in town. And with our last few euros – luckily they didn’t take credit cards as we could’ve done some serious damage here – we bought some fruit jellies for Andrew’s mum, in the most beautiful sweet shop you’ve ever seen, Van Avezaath-Beune.

Café at Schiphol Airport. These wooden loaves looked better than the actual bread, unfortunately, but they had good coffee and free mini-stroopwaffels.

Amsterdam, we love you and will be back, armed with a better knowledge of Dutch… there is so much more to eat!

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Observer/Guardian blog asks, “What is British food?”

Good question. The post consists of a video interview with three British food bloggers, who are asked by the interviewer to suggest a quintessentially British menu. They were apparently caught off guard, though, so be sure to read the commenters’ suggestions.

My hasty (and probably overly cynical) contribution:

Starter: a drink or three
Main: the wood pigeon in my garden, baked in a pie
Pud: something made with suet and dried fruit and maybe a little more booze, steamed, and doused in cream, custard, or both.

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Odds and ends, 10 February 2010

Something spicy from Baozi Inn

I’m going to aim to post an odds-and-ends piece each Wednesday, to avoid nickeling and diming everyone with annoying short posts, and also to avoid feeling overwhelmed with having to keep up with everything food-related that enters my consciousness. Thoughts? If it’s too long, perhaps next time I could split them into a post for general food and eating items, and another for my own cooking efforts? Anyway, here goes.

Richard Lehmann’s Journal Watch: You don’t need to read everything in this post, but dig down halfway to find out why salt’s link to heart disease is still an open question, and then to the end to see why you shouldn’t order crab in a restaurant in England.

I’ll be writing more about my nascent gardening activities, but this article from the Guardian has gotten me jazzed about the idea of growing my own potatoes, in containers.

Someone on the BBC this past week – I’m afraid I can’t remember who – quipped that you can get someone from the North of England to eat anything if you wrap it in pastry. Or something like that. Anyway, Brits do like their pies, and have even gone to the trouble of surveying the quality of the pies in football stadiums. I’m actually fairly pleased with myself that I have not yet succumbed to the lure of the unctuous vapors emitted by West Cornwall Pasty Co. (warning: annoying pirate-themed Flash website), which has a kiosk in every London train station I’ve seen. (I confess that I have, however, eaten a chicken and mushroom turnover from Delice de France, which really amounts to the same thing.)

Having gotten word of a Tuscan supper club in London via my friend Hsien-Hsien Lei, I am intrigued to delve into the underground restaurant scene here. The London Foodie is a blog that focuses on this niche; Bellaphon, with his usual welcome cheek (and Asian food bent) visits quite a few as well, along with his many regular restaurant forays.

Speaking of Asian food, I’ve now walked past Baozi Inn in Chinatown three times, and am really looking forward to braving the spice at this Szechuan eatery. (Bao are buns but also, basically, Chinese pies.)

What I’ve cooked this week:

Raspberry rugelach (very nice, but a lot of work)

An Indian meal featuring chickpea and spinach curry (good) and Patak’s mini-naan (bad – I really need to try making my own)

Tagliatelle with blue cheese sauce, improvised from a couple of recipes. The only downside was the walnuts, which I bought at a health food store and which didn’t taste very nice.

Bagels. I need a new recipe, and based on my reading of a very helpful troubleshooting website, I also need to keep them from overproofing, which makes them swell up and take on too much water while boiling. They were marginally better than my first effort, though. Easily available smoked peppered mackerel and very good cream cheese – both from Tesco – made them worthwhile.

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A sunny day in Canterbury

You know, I don’t feel much like writing today, so here are a few pics from today’s outing; feel free to ask questions, though! What I don’t have is a pic of the high-speed train that got us from St. Pancras to Canterbury, a journey of about 70 miles, in 57 minutes, so here’s a link. It’s as fast (up to 140 mph) as the Eurostar trains that go under the English Channel to Paris and Brussels, but it’s a commuter train.

Canterbury cathedral from the outside...

and one view from the inside... There were many stained-glass windows, of different ages, probably many restored.


An example of the extent of the cathedral; we loved how every time we looked through an arch, you could see more arches.

A ruined section of the cathedral, also beautiful...

OK, on to food. This is from an Italian place called Posillipo Pizzeria that had looked promising. The salad was probably more colorful than tasty (winter tomatoes, plain beans from a can), but it was nice to have a big pile of green stuff.

Andrew liked this fresh pasta with sausage and broccoli.

and the big finale: tea! from The Moat Tea Rooms. The scones were fresh from the oven, and the house blend of loose tea we had was a revelation. It was Assam plus Ceylon, and oddly it reminded me of Chinese tea, making it almost seem a shame to add milk and sugar.

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Rambles around London, v. 1

After a good 48 straight hours in the house, I was more than ready to get out today, so I followed Andrew in on the tube to Spitalfields. He came to pick me up around 6 at the café where I’d been sitting with my laptop, with a hangdog look on his face, thanks to bad workplace news. Clearly, a drink and a brisk walk were in order, but first we headed over to Covent Garden. Despite the dark and cold, vendors closing up for the night, and a lot of posh chain stores, I could appreciate the architecture that went into redeveloping the marketplace near the Royal Opera House; in warmer weather, it’ll be fun to come back and browse.

Then, from across the road, a cutesy-wacky-colorful shop called Cyber Candy grabbed my attention and I knew we had to go in. Sure enough, it was the kind of place a Japanese teenage girl would love, but then again, who wouldn’t? We found everything from lollipops with crickets and mezcal worms to frosting-flavored lip balm to every Commonwealth nation’s full range of Cadbury to Hot Tamale-flavored cotton candy to Family Guy energy drink to… well, you just need to check it out. It’s quite a giggle.

On to Chinatown for a few staples. There was no looming Korean or Vietnamese supermarket, or shops with baskets of dodgy-looking fruit and moribund crabs on the sidewalk. The Chinese grocery we did find was small and tidy and complete in terms of nonperishable staples and some frozen stuff, including a few Japanese and Thai items. In addition to the dried mushrooms and fish sauce we needed, we found prawn crackers in their pre-fried form, for 55 p. “They’re so cheap, get two boxes!” Andrew suggested; I assured him that one box was plenty and would last us for years. I hesitated on the mushrooms because the price wasn’t marked, but the mushrooms, fish sauce, prawn crackers, and rice vinegar all came to less than £5, so they couldn’t have been too bad.

Rounding the corner onto Gerrard Street, another, smaller grocer had some fruit and a steamer case outside with bao in it. Not just the small bao you get with dim sum, but those massive, whole lunch-sized barbecued pork bao, I’m guessing jammed with Chinese sausage and hard-boiled egg as well as pork, that I don’t eat anymore but used to pine for. Andrew can have one on our next trip. And then, oh my – we walked the most beautiful Chinatown high street I have ever seen in my life. Andrew shrugged and said, “As you can see, they’re all pretty much of a muchness.” Well, if that’s the case, my goodness! It was like Disneyland. So clean, such spiffy, modern restaurants. Each window was hung with glistening, lacquered roast ducks more beautiful than the last. (Mmm, duck… can you see another post coming?) Sure, there’s evidence of a few girly bars, but not enough – at least at 7:30 at night – to add much seediness. It helps that there’s a lovely French Catholic church right off the main drag. The loveliest ducks of all were, as a savvy friend told me, in the Four Seasons. Again, we’ll be back.

I’ve been in Chinatowns in Boston, San Francisco, and New York (forget about Washington, DC – that’s practically nonexistent), and all have dwindled from a drain of restaurants and shops to the suburbs, following their clientele and cheaper real estate. There must be some serious money keeping London’s Chinatown alive. Maybe related to Britain’s ties with Hong Kong? That said, where does the Chinese community actually live?

Moving on, though, because I really did want to get to Kopi Tiam for dinner, we looped back around to Charing Cross Road and found the place. Not at all fancy, the prices were right and, on Monday night, we had no trouble getting a table (if we had, you can bet I would’ve been happy to head back to one of those places with the ducks hanging in the window!) We were a little confused because there were two completely non-overlapping menus, without any particular attempt to say why, although one – shorter, and with photos of the food – had the name of the restaurant, Malaysia Kopi Tiam, across the top. It had a number of dishes I could identify as Malay, while the other had Thai dishes, some Chinese, and a whole bunch I wasn’t sure of. We went for the one with the Malay dishes and lucked out. Not really knowing what we were doing, we picked Hokkien Mee, Curry Laksa with chicken, and Roti Canai, and when we asked for steamed rice the waiter pointed out we didn’t really need it, because we had two noodle dishes, and a starter that came with pancakes.

All three dishes, though we really didn’t know how to eat them and made a huge mess, were super-satisfying. The winner was the Curry Laksa: rich, spicy, and intensely warming with chili-stained coconut milk. We passed the bowl back and forth and slurped up every bit of the noodles and gravy, and our lips glowed pleasantly. The Hokkien Mee, with more Chinese flavors of soy sauce, was made with fatter homemade noodles. I liked the Roti Canai, too, though the flaky pancakes were a little bland and could have been smaller.

Warm and happy, we set off into the city in search of dessert. We wiggled through back streets in Soho and saw any number of interesting- and posh-looking restaurants that we noted for future occasions – including a Goan Indian restaurant. But we ended up at an Italian café, called Bar Italia, that apparently was one of the few of its kind remaining from an earlier time. They had a caseful of pretty cakes and tarts, and we ordered two of them, and an espresso, from the fairly surly counter staff. I started painstakingly (I’m learning, ok?) counting out £7 in change, but when I pushed it across the counter with an “OK?” so that the cashier could check my math, he curtly replied, “No, I said £10!” so I took it back and handed him a bill. A little steep, but it’s the big city, right?

Well, I had one bite of my tart, which looked like berries on top of cream, and I was incensed. The cream did not taste like cream, or even ricotta, but whatever the British equivalent of Cool-Whip is, a tasteless and waxy mess. Actually, it didn’t even taste as good as Cool-Whip. And for £4? At least Andrew liked his apple tart, and the coffee.

On the whole, despite my crankiness at the end, a nice evening, good food, companionship, and even exercise. Just as importantly, we got a lot of  good information for future outings.

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Why am I doing this?

What, another food blog? Yes, I already have one, though I haven’t kept it up for years. And I’m sure there are a limited number of pairs of eyeballs interested enough in food porn to support all the rest. But here I am living in England, in a whole new world of food, into which I descended amidst warnings of overboiled gray vegetables and fish and chips cooked in rancid fat. I knew my obsession with the Cadbury machines on every tube platform wouldn’t last – in fact, they no longer exist – but I arrived ready to seek out the good stuff I knew was here. And so it is. And, sure, bad stuff as well – pub food is still, often, just pub food, despite some poncifying here and there and attempts to make money. There are some curious national food traditions that will never go away, like all the Christmas sweets based on booze-macerated dried fruit and animal fat; I know supermarket mince pies are now vegetarian, but only under pressure from the PC police, and hence not the real deal. But you can get really good, cheap, healthy, pre-made, reasonably sized sandwiches in most train stations. There’s lots of competition among supermarkets for the yuppie/organic/green/locavore market, and happy eggs and chickens can be found in even the worst-performing stores.  And as much as I look forward to finding the perfect little Indian grocery where I can befriend the proprietors and get lots of cooking tips while breathing in the smell of spice, I don’t really have to; most of that stuff is around the corner at Tesco.

And restaurants. Yes, there are very good restaurants in England, of all different kinds. It’s not just the highly competitive Indian and Chinese takeaway market – we get menus shoved through the mail slot daily. Some of those aforementioned pubs are now transformed into rustic showcases for lovingly raised or gathered and prepared local meats and seasonal produce. OK, most of this I’ve only seen on TV, for example the slightly nerdy Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall paddling out in the English Channel in an innertube to check his cuttlefish traps. But there are, increasingly, Michelin stars and forks out there, and not just one at a time, and not just at once-in-a-decade-treat prices either.

I do hope to raise my own chickens someday. But for right now, while my partner and I are trying to find the right moment to move out of the London suburbs, and I have lots of free time to shop and surf for recipes and make food for two people who like to eat, this blog is a good way to release some of the foody thoughts and observations circling in my brain. I will still, at least in the near term, eat for comfort, and probably get a little fat – sorry. But while this is therapeutic for me, maybe it’ll be helpful or interesting for others at the same time, and any hints you can offer toward my wild bagel chases are most welcome.

I should note that I am grateful for the chance to live in England, at the pleasure of Her Majesty’s government, and I will try to be accurate, and any observations here that might be naive or even wrong are my own. I’m really not trying to be controversial, start any fights or comment wars, or (worse) get my visa yanked. So while I will strive for British politeness, readers might offer the same.

Kthxbye.

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