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July 2012

I’ve always had a strange attachment to Scandinavian things. IKEA, Norwegian and Swedish prints and patterns, salmon, northern lights, forests, snowy mountains, reindeers (?). Yea, you might think, such a strange child. But it is not an exaggeration when I say hitting the Scandinavian soil is one of my dreams.

I was always teased by friends saying I’m a full-time traveller rather than a full-time student. Although it may not be something I should be proud of, as I really should stay focused when I study, I’m proud of all the lands i’ve walked on, all the seas i’ve sailed. There is an old Chinese saying that speaks my heart:

Better to walk a ten thousand miles than to read a ten thousand books (讀萬卷書不如行萬里路)

I may not be rich in academic knowledge, but the wealth I gained from seeing the world is priceless and unique. And i’m forever grateful for all those opportunities.

My travel buddy H. is my friend from Uni back in HK. In fact I just joined a few legs of their Grand Europe Tour in June. She’s my fellow avid traveller, trusted friend and loving sister in Christ. Our idea for this was really random. She wanted to stay around for a bit after Grand Europe Tour, opened the map and the first thing that came into her sight was Norway. I always wanted to go to Norway so when she suggested the trip I jumped at the opportunity.

Scandinavian countries are known for their extremely high living standards (hence extremely expensive for travellers). We shopped all the foodstuff we need at Tesco’s and stuffed them all into our backpacks. So thankful for this decision when we later find out that you need to pay around HKD110 for a McDonalds meal.

We toured with Norway In A Nutshell. Our journey starts from Oslo, touring through the Norwegian highlands, stopping at the beautiful town of Flåm for 2 days, then landing at the beautiful coastal city of Bergen.

The Journey Begins…

The non-stop journey from Oslo to Bergen takes around 7 to 8 hours. We were dozing off on the train but suddenly jumped to consciousness when we realized there was a vast stretch of white outside our window. Bare in mind it was July, and though I know some mountain ranges remained snowy all seasons, it still shocked me to infinity and beyond.

Finse – We seized the 5 minute station stop to jump outside. It was so quite, so quite that I think you can hear it if a needle drops. The chilly wind was blowing, and we saw some people hiking up the snowy mountains. The view was spectacular. I was cold but my heart was on fire.

H and I 🙂

Mydral – Getting off to transfer to the Bergen Railway to the Flåm Railway

Note to self: time to lose some weight, really.

Flåm Railway is one of the highlights of this Nutshell tour which you can’t miss. Connecting the mountain stop of Mydral and the town of Flåm, it is one of the steepest railway in the world. It brings us to see the spectacular waterfalls, breathtaking mountain views and glimpse of the majestic Aurlandfjord.

I wonder if heaven looks like this?

Flåm is situated at the bottom of the valley, against the backdrop of the majestic mountains and Aurlandfjord. Sitting against the natural canvas behind, Flåm is one of the hidden Norwegian jewels you must explore.

The weather in July wasn’t that stable, alternates between pouring rain, drizzles or bright sunshine. So a light water-proof jacket is definitel recommended. H and I stayed at a camping site and we found out many families drive with their caravans and camp out there. It was quite an interesting scene to see many couples and families chilling out on the greens with their camp chair and coffee in hand.

Since we arrived in Flåm in the afternoon, we decided to just take it easy for the day and chill out in the area. As typical Hong Kong girls (?), we take tons of pictures of every single spot we visited……

me screaming with heart-shaped eyes: BABIEEEESSSSSS!!!! (and how cute they are, striking a pose for us)

Reminiscing our favourite childhood activities

My inner happy child released.

Blogging always takes longer than I expected, because there’s so much I want to share with you all!

Follow the blog for our further adventures of majestic Fjord hikes, colourful city of Bergen and numerous jump-shots!

Until then,

xoxo

Hello! Sorry I’ve disappeared off the Earth surface for a while. June is HECTIC! So much on my plate but there’s so much I want to share with you all. I need some real peace to sit down and write something, but for the mean time I just want to drop a note here and say I miss you (and the space to write and blab). Stay tuned for more travel goodies!

Two quotes that highlights my month (and I hope strikes home for you too):

You can’t teach experience.
Your greatness is given to you. 

Taken in Burano, Italy (June 2012)

Wish y’all a beaaautiful June evening!

Until then,

xoxo

My toes are freezing and it’s June. Not just June, but two full weeks into this reputedly summer month. I sarcastically Google today’s weather forecast in Siberia:

Wow. This is a really cruel joke. If the Brits are reputed for their endurance (Keep Calm and Carry On), this is why — it takes real grit to put up with 8 months (and counting) of winter… and to be bested by one of the coldest populated sinkholes on the planet. The Brits are also very polite and don’t fight back. Fortunately I am neither polite nor patient so I went with this primordial craving for a hot, rich, heart-warming tummy-padding mushroomy mushroom soup. I wanted it to be hearty but still light — loads of vegetables, no cream — because we are not (supposed to be) in hibernation mode.

Below, you can see the process: stir-frying the thickly sliced chestnut mushrooms, diced and sliced white onions, carrots and celery. Shaking on lots of mixed aromatic herbs, garlic powder (which is not an inferior version of the fresh stuff — just different, with its own mild pungence), hot smoked paprika, and a dash of toasty nutmeg. Adding in some red kidney beans for some needed heft, stirring in lots of organic beef broth cubes and finally, serving with steamed brown rice.

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Voila — a hot soup to cradle in the crutches of my icy fingers and warm me from the inside out. It’s made about 8 portions so I have a batch in the fridge and one in the freezer to last me a week.

Next in the pipeline — Chinese cooking by Jamie Penaloza! Make that “by 蔡佳颖”. I’ve just received my order of Fuchsia Dunlop’s brand spanking new cookbook “Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking”. Seems like a horrible thing to do to learn the fundamentals of Chinese cookery from a British woman rather than from your own Chinese mother (who is an excellent Chinese cook too)! But it does make sense; I relate to Fuchsia’s wide-eyed reverence to Chinese food and culinary culture since I also feel like I’m approaching it from the outside, having grown up in the West. She also guides on how to cook authentic Chinese with what’s available to us in the UK.

I’m inspired, after much foodie-wandering far and wide, to reconnect with my culinary heritage and really get it right. I’m also inspired to eat better, more varied, yet still simple. I also like to wow people. I may start a separate blog to log the beginning of this project; stay posted.

I had my London shpiel all thought out. As excited as I was to hit beloved, but now strange, American soil for the first time in two long years, I was fairly confident that London and I had chosen each other, and I would be comfortably defending our mutual love.

London, I would say, has got historic charm; grand Georgian, Edwardian an Victorian buildings nestled around Norman Foster’s Gherkin building; just as many innovative/simple/chic/hipster-paradise food joints around town; and maybe even friendlier people.

Totally abandoned the shpiel on day three. First, New Yorkers are friendly! I never needed to do anything but look lost, and someone would approach me to ask if I needed help. If you’re in an elevator, it’s actually considered weird NOT to say hi to your temporary claustrophobia buddies.

More on culture later… what I want to give you a tour on today is the food. Why do New Yorkers get it so, so right? You can’t find Italian food as good in London, only a two hour flight from the motherland… but fly farther afield and several more hours  over to NYC and it’s the real deal. Nothing disappointed and I managed to knock a few (of the dizzyingly many) off my eat-before-I-die (or eat-UNTIL-I-die) list.

Exhibit A: Shake Shack

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Humble concept with a smart execution and high quality. You could compare it in theory to McDonald’s, but in practice it is almost on another planet. Quality burgers and milkshakes and root beer floats. I went rogue and got the hot dog — I always go for the underdog, anyway. Feast your eyes on the “Shack-ago” dog — Chicago style “dragged through the garden” with all the toppins’ — onions, relish, mustard. I love the “flat-top” grill technique — rather than roll the cylindrical dog around the grill, it’s split and pressed flat on the grill to get an even char. Simply delicious. To chase I had a nostalgic favourite — the purple cow, a root beer float but with artificially purple grape soda and the requisite vanilla ice cream. Blissful park bench eating on a fine, hot and sunny day.

 

Exhibit B: The Dutch

 

 

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Another hugely anticipated visit. It’s the chef Andrew Carmellini’s new joing — Carmellini of Locanda Verde fame, known for sumptuous, rich and fresh flavours. It’s nouveau American, illustrated above — an amazing oyster slider — think adorable mini burger bun, onto which a lovingly battered and deep-fried oyster has been coaxed into and bathed in a mayo-based sauce and topped with a bit of fresh shredded lettuce. Worth the $5 per mini burger; I’d have ordered 4 and made it my dinner. But I ventured to try the tripe stew — brightly garnished with avocado and red onions, and irreverently served with a heap of Fritos — yes, the cheap corn chips of white trash repute. Simple, good grub done professionally and with the best ingredients. Their pies are also famous; I’ve heard rave reviews about their missus pastry chef, Kieran Baldwin. Her banana cream pie did not disappoint. It was chunky mashed, just-ripe bananas with fresh whipped cream on a graham cracker base, kept crisp with a layer of dark chocolate. Served cold, it was a serendipitous finish to our meal.

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I’ll leave it here for you to digest… stay posted for more goodies..

Great things are done by a series of small things put together
– Vincent van Gogh

It’s official.
I’m in love with Amsterdam. I love their canals, the flowers, the people, the pancakes, the bike-jam, the coffeehuis, the breezes and the sun. In fact, I’m in love with so many different places, I believe everytime you visit a foreign place, whether its your first time there or revisit, you just see their different beauties all over again.
Thank God for let me opening my eyes.

So let me share a bit of my love with you. And I do encourage you, if you’ve never been to this city, buy your ticket, pack your bag, and GO.
If you’ve been, well, buy your ticket, pack your bag, and GO AGAIN.

For me, there’s no better time to travel than now. There’s just 24 hours a day and 7 days a week you’ve got there. There’s so much on your plate and you don’t know how to strike the balance, but sometimes taking a chance and leap forward is fun, try it for a short weekend, you’ll be much energized.

JUST. LOOK. AT. THIS.

Heavens like this. EVERYWHERE.
How can one resist?

I was like a hungry slave liberated (a bit exaggerating, but yo gat watcha mean?)

One good thing about visiting the city in late March is that it is not swamped with tourists with the opening of the tulip season, but you can still manage to catch some glimpse of the warm Nordic sun if you manage. P and I were particularly lucky during our stay.

Amsterdam is one of those what I call “multi-purpose” cities. One full of activities from one extreme to another, a full rainbow spectrum of amazements that takes you by surprise. You want a chilled weekend by the canals? Sure do. Or you wanna party hard? No problem as well.

I’m quite a trekker when it comes to travelling. I’m probably the laziest person you’ll know but when I’m abroad, I walk hardcore. In fact, I figured walking and people watching/stalking is my favourite. and Amsterdam is an AMAZING city for you to people watch/stalk.

You think I’m joking?
Naw, I’m serious.

If you have an afternoon to spare during your trip, or you’re just not up for hardcore stuff, people watching on Prinsengracht will be on my top list of recommendations.

Prinsengracht is one of the may canals that links up the unique beauty of Amsterdam. It is one of the three main canals that are located in the heart of the City, you wouldn’t miss it, its pretty much like Central or Causeway bay in Hong Kong, or Convent Garden in London (figuratively).

One thing that’s really quirky and cool about Amsterdam is, things that seems odd when you do it in other places (like Hong Kong) looks extremely normal here.
Quite a cultural difference (shock) for me.

People ride bikes, whether they’re rich or working class, whether they are wearing expensive suits, extravagant heels or just converse and jeans;
People socialize with their neighbours, greet with friendly smiles but not cold nods;
People know how the work-life balance, a bunch of real estate agents sipping away a champagne afternoon tea tells me;
People know how to enjoy life, whether a simple read on the canal bank, or a relaxing cruise with a bunch of friends and several beers.

To the stranger reader, I hope I did not offend you by sneaking a picture here.

If you’re visiting between March and May, you musn’t miss out the Keukenhof Flower show. It’s definitely one of the must-sees if you go to Amsterdam, think Lavender of Provence or the floral fields in Hokkaido, Japan.

Stay tuned for the Keukenhof flower show and Amsterdam’s best afternoon tea!  (Yea i know I’ve been hanging there in the mid-air for wayyyy too long!)

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I’m still swaying with a heady enchantment over the 4-day Easter weekend spent in Scotland with Will’s family. On Thursday afternoon we left work at 5pm, dashed to King’s Cross with our baggage — mine filled with practical yet presentable clothes, a springform cake pan to make an Easter cheesecake with, a wrapped-up bottle of Laurent Perrier rosé champagne to give as a gift, and a zip-pocket full of anxiety — and just 5.5 hours later we were out of the bustling city and surrounded by fresh soothing scenery of rolling green hills.

My idea of paradise isn’t a beach with azure waters, sandy sand and palm-treeish palms under a blazin’ hot sun. My idea of peace and relaxation is Scotland — idyllic countryside in a sea of fresh green grass, freshwater lakes (or, since we’re north — “lochs”). Woods to roam, hills to hike and drink in the scene below. Just enough of a dewy snap in the air temperature to instigate lots of canoodling under warm fleece blankets near the fireplace, or bundled up on the porch with a tumbler of watered whisky while drinking in the lake view.

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Up in Clunie, Perthshire — north of Glasgow and Edinburgh — we took walks every day, played golf and cooked delicious lunches and dinners. There was too much chocolate, everywhere and in all shapes, bakes and form (that ain’t a complaint).

It sounds like there isn’t much to do, no sights to tick off a jam-packed guidebook. That’s kind of the point — this is a real vacation, one where you can vacate your mind of the stresses of city and work life, which seem so far away and so inconsequential when you’re faced with the beauty of the land. And what therapy could be better than home-cooked meals (and a bountiful pantry and fridge) shared with family, rather than stressful restaurant-h(a)unting?

Having sung my praises, here’s the downside: it’s no fun if you don’t have your own home there or don’t know a good friend who does. Scotland can be really remote — I barely saw another face aside from our group the whole weekend! — an having your own place means having somewhere really comfortable to return to if it starts raining, or if you’ve had enough of the outdoors and just want to sit on the couch with a hot cup of tea, cookies and the U.S. Masters (golf) on the telly. And you need a car. It would be very difficult to wind down as comfortably if you had no car, and stayed at a dinky bed-n-breakfast not near a scenic lake, as Will’s house is.

So the top tip here is: see which of your friends’ parents have countryside houses, get on their good graces, and then move in. That last procedure is my current fantasy. But if you can’t get there, hope you enjoy these photos.

Hola,

I’ve been terrible at posting but brilliant at documenting. Oh, and, if you were about to guess, I’ll just say that YEAH, it’s a post about food.

It’s pretty obvious if you look through my iPhone’s photo album, my life is documented by pictures of shared meals. This is no surprise to anyone with some semblance of typical social life. When you get out of the office, the evening is yours to convene with friends who are also freed from their shackles. And, oh, it’s dinner time too.

There are always many restaurants on my list that I want to try, and my way of justifying the expenses is to kill two birds with one stone and get my quota for social-time in, too. Wait, is that just wrong of me — which is the means to the end, friends or food? Well, the beauty is how innately tied the two are. While sometimes I do seem to “use” my dear dear friends to be my restaurant posse, food is the medium through which conversation, shared experience and memory join. Also, mmm, mmm.

Below, some memorable meals I’ve shared (and put away, if you will), the experiences and what they have meant to me:

Saturday Night: the 3-hour wait at Burger & Lobster, rewarded. Met old friends and new ones while first bonding in waitlist solidarity at a nearby pub, then bonding over our hard-earned lobster fest (at, finally, 10:30pm), then, recharged, ended up dancing all night at the Playboy Club (strangely not a sleazy place at all — actually a lot more demure than most sweaty clubs in London…). Yumfun.

Sunday brunch at Sandy and Joe’s — and baby Esmé. Met friends-of-friends, a slightly older crowd of still very fun, bright and entertaining expat Americans, so while I felt a bit out of place being 10 years younger than everyone (or was it the massive hangover that was giving me an out-of-body experience?), it was still a comforting and fun circle to plop around the couch with. Oh and, by the way, a fabulous Sunday brunch spread of oven-cooked scrambled eggs (18 eggs in total, for 8 people!), smoked salmon, Mexican barbecoa (braised ox cheeks tacos, a trad Mex breakfast), lemon-rosemary cake, cinnamon buns, scones, lots of clotted cream and jam! Faint. 

Cute sock, babay.

Date Night: The (Formerly) Doomed Carribbean Place!

Ever since BEFORE Will and I were dating, he’d wanted to take me to a this “amazing” Caribbean restaurant in Camden (called the Mango Room). Every time we scheduled it for a Wednesday, but EVERY time, something came up unexpectedly — ie., Contemporary Art Evening Sale at work, for which I had to stay in the office til 10pm. After 4 months it was time to give it another try. And… we got there! Our first date night. I overcame my fear of sweet cocktails with a phenomenal Piña Colada, and had a traditional Jamaican “saltfish and ackeee” to start, goat curry for main. Mm, gamey goat goat. Now that we’ve broken the spell with a successful night out, what’s next?!

Saltfish with Ackee

Saltfish with Ackee

Goat Curry

Goat Curry

Oyster at the Market

My friends Warren and Irene came to visit me at my cake stand at Sloane Square market and grab some good market grub. The current winner is the oscure Peruvian stall shoved behind all the other stalls. Hidden gem — they make a dang good meal of char-grilled chicken and pork and creamy beans, seasoned with cilantro and other spices, atop a bed of fluffy quinoa. How do I know, even though I’ve never ventured there to buy one? They go and buy different lunches, and we reconvene at my stall and share bites with each other. The cakes are on me 🙂

Another favourite is a now-ritual we do — get a plate of freshly shucked oysters from the Maldon Oysters truck. W’s favourite is with a squeeze of lemon and black pepper; mine is sherry vinager with tiny diced onions. We clink the oysters’ jagged edges to each others’ and shoot em down — a pre-shooter for potential Saturday late-night fun.

Celebrating La Vie en Londre

A girl from highschool at Lawrenceville, Vicky, was in town so we thought we’d get a little Lawrenceville reunion together. Karl (blonde one), Justin, Vicky and I are only a year apart. We weren’t friends in high school, but now that everyone’s “grown up” it made no difference. It was fun to reconnect, especially in a country far away from where we’d all started — which as it turns out, is for all four of us NEW JERSEY. Four New Jerseyans in London…

I chose the Windmill pub, one of London’s few remaining, absolutely charming and old-school pubs. It’s on Mill Street, right off of Regent’s Street. They supposedly have award-winning pies and I thought it’d be great to celebrate our being here with some classic British grub. My Shepherd’s Pie  was hands-down the winner — served bubbling hot in its own mini casserole dish, topped with broiled cheese and leeks….

I’ll leave at it that for digestive purposes….

What was the last big meal out you had, and how was it enhanced by the friends you had enjoying it with you?

In the pipeline — This Easter four-day weekend I’ll be way oop North in Scotland with Will’s family. I can’t wait to get some me some nature, peace and quiet, fresh clean air and some cheesecake-baking too. Will update for my first Jane-style travel post!