Monday, December 31, 2012

Bi-Rite Creamery: the Ice-Cream to Die for

It is one cool September afternoon. The undulating San Francisco streets are chilly, yet the autumn breeze seems to have no effect on deterring the queue forming outside Bi-Rite Creamery. Everyone in San Francisco knows Bi-Rite, or at least have heard about it. My best friend Angela raves about it. My Korean expat friend who works in San Francisco immediately screams "Bi-Rite" as soon as I mention ice-cream. And they all have one thing in common - they all roll their eyes backwards at the thought of the Creamery's signature flavor, Salted Caramel.

It has long since become customary for Angela to go on a pilgrimage to Bi-Rite whenever she and her family visit this very city that they have called home for many years. They literally buy tubs of Salted Caramel each time. Just how good can ice-cream get?

After circling the three-block radius numerous times and finally landing a parking spot, we stand in line quivering while I anxiously study the day's menu. Is this going to be yet another painstaking decision-making process? Roasted Banana... Brown Sugar with Ginger Caramel Swirl... Earl Grey... Coffee Toffee... yup, it most certainly will be tougher than choosing an automobile.

So I turn to Angela, who is determined to get nothing but double scoops of Salted Caramel, which I find slightly odd (why two scoops of the same flavor?). "Hey, how about I try your Salted Caramel, that way we can taste more flavors?" 

"Nooo." She is so firm I swear she almost rolled her eyes.

For more than a decade that I have known Angela, she is always generous, easy-going, and always accommodating. C'mon, it's Jaa. Never in a million years will I see that shock of rejection coming.
- "You're kidding right?" I snicker, in disbelief.  
- "No, I'm having my own two scoops!"
Wow. An ice-cream venerable enough to make your best friend turn her back on you.

Time to order... the point of no turning back!
There is always something intriguing about ice-cream parlours. People are always jolly. Ice-cream brings out the child in every individual. I make up my mind on my three chosen flavors as we scootch into the toasty interior of this crowded ice-cream shop. A herb fanatic that I am, and an off-the-beaten-path type adventurer, I go for Honey Lavander, the seasonal feature Basil, and of course Salted Caramel. A young woman in front who just claims her ice-cream exclaims to her companion, "O, M, G. The Salted Caramel... get it!!!" I begin to worry, will over-anticipation lead to a massive let-down? 

The ice-cream guy carefully stacks the third scoop onto my waffle cone. I clumsily put away my change and mindlessly take my first bite while Angela gets hers in a cup. And bang. The savoriness of kosher salt, dancing in tango with rich caramel, seducing the tongue with a hint of smokiness - all enveloped in a superbly smooth and creamy texture. The ice-cream is intense, and wildly complex. It is the happy-ever-after marriage of the sweet and the savory. My knees buckle like noodles while my eyes roll to heavens.

Yes, this Salted Caramel is to die for.

The Honey Lavander and Basil are no less decadent. Dainty, rather than soapy, is the word that comes to mind with the Honey Lavander - a subtle yet remarkable concoction of organic dried lavender and honey harvested from the Creamery's own farms and beehives. And the Basil, a creamy off-white with the slighest tint of meadow green, is a mouthful of bursting, freshly-picked-from-the-garden flavor.

Perhaps it is the quality of organic ingredients; the Creamery's efforts to source as locally as possible (The Straus Family Creamery organic dairy, only 45 miles away, supply all of the organic milk, cream and eggs in their recipes); their committment to the environment (all their disposables are biodegradeable); and the very fact that nearly everything is handmade, homemade and freshly made daily that lifts all the sins and guilt off the indulgence of really, really, really good ice-cream. 

So, what's the verdict? If the world were coming to an end as it was prophesied this past December 21st, and I was granted the chance for one last scoop of ice-cream, it would have to be Bi-Rite Creamery's Salted Caramel. Two scoops, if I may. To die for, again, and again.

Salted Caramel, Honey Lavander, and Basil

 [Any comments or thoughts? Share with me!]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Street foods: Peru

Finding street foods is always some sort of a treasure hunt. It is cheap, catered towards local palates, satisfies sudden cravings, and is usually delightfully tasty - even if marginally good for your body. Drastically different from sitting in a restaurant, eating foods off the streets is as much a part of my travel experience. For me, sometimes it even is a highlight.

On my journey from Cusco and around the Sacred Valley down to Puno I kept an eye out for quick bites along the way. Sweet, savory, greasy - you name it - the only regret? I wish I could have had more Papas Rellenas (stuffed potatoes) and Picarones (deep-fried fritters)!

To read more about each photo, roll your mouse cursor over "Notes" (on the bottom right, above the thumbnails).
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stir-fry in strange country

Lomo saltado, with chicken instead of beef
Upon arriving at Lima, I am burned out after 24 hours of flying but nevertheless eager to explore the Peruvian food scene. Dotted around the Centro Histórico are small, family-run comedores serving ordinary fare and a surprising abundance of vegetarian eateries. After roaming a few blocks on an empty stomach and seeing virtually identical menus, I finally stumble into one eatery and order away. Having not done any prior research of Peruvian cuisine my understanding and expectations are blank as a cloud. Will it reflect region-specific variations and  influences from Spanish colonial rule? Will it have the colors and fire of, say, Mexican cuisine? Well, fire may not score big in Peru, but regional diversity and international influences, yes.
Tallarín saltado
Little would I expect, however, the heavy influences of Chinese cooking here in Lima. Until I order it I realize that the name of the fried rice dish chaufa actually originated from the Cantonese specialty chow-fan. And lomo saltado, a dish that headlines practically all Peruvian menus, is essentially an Asian stir-fry with beef, onions, peppers and, interestingly, potatoes. Likewise, the tallarín saltado resembles what Americans would call chow mein. 
Tasty though the meal is, I am left confused, even disillusioned. Will Peruvian food continue to "surprise" me? Surely and fortunately it will, with many more surprises to come. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Sacred Leaf of the Andes

This month, my adventures have brought me to a long anticipated visit to Cusco, the capital of the enormous ancient Inca Empire that is also the gateway to one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu. At over 3,300 meters above sea level in the highlands of Peru, many travelers may begin to feel the onset of altitude sickness.

A hot cup of Mate de coca, steeped for a few minutes with a handful of coca leaves, is the best remedy for altitude sickness. At once sacred and medicinal, the controversial coca leaf is steeped in Andean history and is not only used as offerings to the gods but also used by the indigenous population to help them through long days of hard work. This morning, with a breathtaking vista of adobe rooftops overlooking colonial cobblestone streets and the majestic Andes as the backdrop, this (third) cup of Mate makes a fresh start for my day onwards to exploring the Sacred Valley of Peru.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A New Year Breakfast with Bo Lo Yau: A Sinfully Good Beginning

As I look back to my travels and food encounters in 2010, I can't help but feel my taste buds tingle and find myself somewhat puzzled as to where to begin. Will it be the pungent aromas of fish paste in a Vietnamese wet market? The endless temptations of street foods in Taiwan? Or my unforgettable afternoon with tea and scones in the quaint English countryside? Alas, as I sit down and take my first bite of 2011, I decide that there is no more appropriate way to kickstart my writing than to begin with my very hometown: Hong Kong.

Having moved to northwestern New Territories of Hong Kong earlier last year, I have only recently begun rediscovering this region, comprising mainly of the Yuen Long and Tuen Mun districts. As a child I remember Yuen Long particularly for its fields and mazes of ancient, traditional walled villages, tucked aeons away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Hong Kong. As the district developed to meet housing needs and modern chain stores sprouted along its main thoroughfare, Yuen Long has begun to look like a generic Hong Kong residential complex - overcrowded, branded, and bland. The good news is, as I wander off into the flanks of the thoroughway, the town begins to feel and look different. Yuen Long has all but lost its charm.

It is my luck, therefore, that I stumble upon a tiny block skirted by semi-outdoor food stalls that appear to have endured certain age. It is January 1, the streets hum with an optimistic spirit spilt over from the previous night's New Year's Eve countdown. But with so many choices of places to eat, which one shall I pick? The Golden Rule: when in doubt, pick the one with the most customers.

Busy waitstaff delivering orders and buttering toast
At 4:00PM, this place is hopping. 西苑咖啡食店, roughly translated as Sai Yuen Coffee House, is perhaps best described as a 'teahouse' - a very local, traditional one at that - with nothing short of its plasticware, foldable tables and stools, runned by seasoned hands and serving all but the most familiar local fare and refreshments. Call it all-day breakfast - not pancakes, eggs, bacon or hash - but the local favorite bo lo bao, instant soup noodles with assorted toppings, various local versions of sandwiches, accompanied with Hong Kong-style milk tea and coffee.

And at four this afternoon, when every other Hong Konger is enjoying afternoon tea, I am hungry for my first bite of the day (yes, I had a late night) - and the first meal of the year - and nothing sounds better than comfort food. As is customary when there is a shortage of seats, I settle in a table with complete strangers, and start off with a ginger tea, an iced milk tea, and a bo lo yau.

Milk tea, hot ginger tea, and a bo lo yau
Hot ginger tea - not always found in most beverage lists across the city, this is certainly a perfect winter warmer that is believed to relieve rheumatism. Simply boiled with heaps of fresh ginger and brown rock sugar, the tea is spicy and not excessively sweet. Judging from the crates full of ginger in the back of the teahouse and from the generous amount of ginger floating in my glass, Sai Yuen definitely doesn't take its creation lightly. Also available on the menu is hot ginger cola - a supposedly great cold reliever that requires no more sugar than the Coke's own sugar content.  

Bo lo bao (菠蘿包), known as pineapple bun in Chinese, is a staple in Chinese bakeries and cha chaan tengs. A sweet pastry-bun, the bo lo bao is so named for its golden, crunchy, sugary, checkered top likened to the outer shell of the tropical fruit. When hot out of the oven, this local favorite is to die for.
Bo lo baos in the display oven 
Here at Sai Yuen Coffee House, a small stainless steel display oven keeps the buns ready to be reheated in the tiny toaster oven underneath. And on this special day, I have the perfect excuse for a mega-caloric and cholesterol indulgence - I treat myself to a bo lo yau (菠蘿油), which is a pineapple bun that comes halved and stuffed with a slab of chilled butter inside. Though I usually prefer mine piping hot, as a bo lo yau the bun is served only slightly warm perhaps to prevent the butter slab from melting. Gasp. At HKD 7, the bo lo yau is so divine, but so bad for you - but can you really deny that butter makes anything devilish good?

I put the guilt temporarily aside as the golden top gives way to a scrumptious crunch... then the butter and the world altogether dissolving on my tongue. It is January 1 after all. Save the new year resolutions for Chinese New Year.

Tables filled with patrons at Sai Yuen Coffee House

[Any comments or thoughts? Share with me!]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome to Worldly Eats, Local Treats!

Hong Kong celebrates as it enters 2011
Happy 2011! As we step into a brand new year, it is time to pull together my long-planned 'travelfoodlog' - a blog that brings together my adventures around the world and my encounters with local foods, tastes, and customs. A photographic journey that lets you into my gastronomic world of discovery (and sometimes nostalgia) through chaotic markets, slippery alleys, homely diners and quaint coffee shops. Follow me in my experiences of the good and the bad in jaded tourist traps or, as I much prefer, take the road less traveled and stumble upon unexpected rewards. Good food is everywhere, and most often it doesn't require a big checkbook.

I am always hungry for more, and I hope in reading my blog that you will, too.