Category Archives: Travel

Snacking in Singapore

IMG_2488Afew weeks ago, I found out I would be making a very short trip to Singapore for work. Three days. 72 hours on the ground, and approximately  36 hours of air travel. After accepting the inevitably long flight time and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to tack a real Asian vacation onto the trip, I booked my flight to build in an extra afternoon of exploration time before meetings started, and started dreaming. About food.

In all honesty, food is the only reason I’ve ever wanted to come to Singapore, and it’s never been quite strong enough of a driver to propel me halfway around the earth just to eat. As a kid, I only knew Singapore as the place where you could get caned for spitting out your chewing gum (a thought that still haunted me a bit every time I popped a piece of gum during the trip). More recently, I knew of it as a somewhat mysterious, meticulously clean melting pot with a much higher price point than other nearby countries in Asia.

It wasn’t until my flight over here, armed with a few extremely outdated travel guides and a lot of spare time on the flight, that I made my first attempt to understand what Singapore is all about…and why it’s supposed to be so delicious.


Singapore is a young country. A young city-state to be more exact. The country as we know it was founded not so long ago in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles when he signed a treaty with the Sultan of Johor to establish the Southern part of the island as a British trading post. Realizing its strategic significance, due to its location at the end of the Malay Peninsula, the British built the place up, eventually establishing rubber plantations that brought in lots of migrant workers from India, China, and other places.

Before Raffles’ arrival, there were only about 1,000 people living on the island, most of them indigenous Malays. So as the island became more and more developed, it also became more and more diverse in a pretty unique way, since there wasn’t a significant native population present. Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Eurasian people all mixed together to form  a state with many languages, religions, skin colors, and customs. Peranakans, Singapore-born descendants of Chinese settlers who came to Singapore in the 15th-17th centuries, I guess are the closest thing to a modern native population, and the bulk of them have a mixed heritage, largely Chinese and Malay.


The point of all this is that this place is diverse. I’ve never really been anywhere like it, and riding the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) is a pretty illuminating window into just how diverse Singapore is. Aside from the crazy range of language, race, and culture that you’ll see displayed in any station or train car, one only needs to go down any metro line and read the station names to realize that you are in the midst of a ethno-cultral hodge podge: Orchard, Kampong Bahru, Tai Seng, Little India, Joo Koon, Lavender, Khatib–you would never guess those stations were all in the same place.

Getting back to the topic at hand, you can only imagine the effect that this diversity has had on the local cuisine. A lot of Chinese food, a good amount of Indian, tons and tons of options from other parts of Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world, as well as a generous selection of options that bridge the gap between several of the above categories, creating something uniquely Singaporean and pretty darn delicious. Since I’ve been here I’ve had Haianese, Indian, Peranakan, Italian, British-influenced fare, and food from Hong Kong. I’ve been here for one day. Here are some highlights of the things I’ve Snacked on:

Haianese Chicken Rice


A Singaporean staple, one of the city-state’s national dishes (there are multiple, naturally), and an affordable and easily-accessible example of down-home cooking. Chicken rice is exactly what it sounds like: chicken and rice. The chicken can be cooked in a variety of ways, but in Singapore, the “must try” variety is poached, then dunked in cold water to form a gelatinous layer right under the chicken’s skin. The chicken is served at room temperature over a bed of steamy rice that’s been prepared in the drippings from the birds. It is good. Really good. But super simple. The chicken is cool and tender, the rice is hot and super flavorful with a great texture from the added drippings, but that’s it. To me, this dish was just a great simple plate of food. I think you will enjoy it most if you think of it the same way…there is a lot of hype around it amongst travelers to Singapore, and I think that risks taking something away from the experience of eating it. But go. Find a place that looks good. Grab a plate, and just enjoy it.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice
Location: Stall 10, Maxwell Food Centre 
Cost: $5

Kaya Toast


I was obsessed with finding Kaya toast. But like Chicken Rice, it’s everywhere, and it’s simple! Just look at that picture. Not exactly a showpiece meal. I went to Ka Yun Kaya Toast and got a combo Kopi (local style coffee that is roasted with butter or margarine and served with condensed milk in a variety of different combos) and Kaya toast on my first afternoon when I just needed a break to sit down, and it was lovely in its simplicity. You will find Ya Kun outposts EVERYWHERE, especially in malls, but I couldn’t really go a few blocks without seeing a kopitiam or toast place. If I had more free mornings, I would definitely make an effort to indulge in a full Kopi and Kaya Toast breakfast. And I bought two mini jars to bring home!

Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Location: Throughout Singapore
Cost: $5

Bak Kwa


I LOVE BAK KWA. I had only ever heard of this jerky-style dried pork product before because I know my friend’s mom loves it. She is from Hong Kong, but evidently Bak Kwa is a treat that is enjoyed throughout Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and the surrounding countries, and it is so delicious. It’s basically greasy dried meat, which sounds awful, but if you like jerky, especially the thick meaty variety, you just need to buy this. It’s not cheap, but you also can’t bring it back to the US, so just buy some and enjoy it while you can. I went to the above spot (no photo due to scarfing this down too fast), but if you are on New Bridge Road in Chinatown you will pass dozens of bak kwa outlets to pick from.

Bee Ching Hang
Location: 189 New Bridge Road, Chinatown
Cost: $3 for one piece (which is plenty for a little greasy snack)

Tan’s Tutu Coconut Cake


This was one of my least favorite things, though I still managed to eat most of it. They are weird little cakes made out of rice flower, stuffed with different fillings like peanuts, coconut, chocolate, or red bean, then steamed in a mold. I could also hardly manage a photo as they were so hot that they were steaming up my phone lens. They looked so nice and fluffy here that I was dying to try these, but they ended up being more dense than I expected and I just didn’t love them…one day I’ll give them another try.

Tan’s Tutu Coconut Cake
Location: Stall 25, Havelock Road Cooked Food Center (I went to one in an Orchard mall but can’t find the address)
Cost: $2.50 for 3 of the same filling, or $3 for 3 if you mix the fillings

Tak Po Hong Kong Dim Sum

IMG_2506I felt like a massive fatty eating this breakfast, but it was damn tasty. I sat outside by myself at a nice sidewalk table and watched people queue up all morning to eat here. After the peanuts (they are not free, but I love peanuts, so ok), I used the pencil and check-list style menu they gave me to order a selection of yummy treats, mostly fried, to indulge in at 9am. The top left is yam cake, which was nice, then the furry thing is some kind of crispy yam dumpling (meh), then a steamed bao (always solid) and on the bottom a “homestyle puff” which was yummy. My only regret is that I wish I was there with other people so I could sample more! They also served a nice tall kopi with condensed milk over ice, which was an indulgent compliment to my fried plate.

Tak Po Dim Sum
Address: 42 Smith Street, Chinatown
Cost: $0.80-$5 per dish

Roti Prata

IMG_2515Speaking of fried…..oh man this was an indulgence. Roti prata is a bready little thing, either stuffed with something delicious or dipped in something delicious. I feel like it was somewhere between a nice soft naan and a thin, delicate crepe. It is prepared from a ball of buttery dough that is stretched and pulled in front of you, then folded up–in my case, around a bunch of sliced bananas, granulated sugar, and ghee (clarified butter)–and then plopped on a hot griddle to get nice and crispy. This is not health food. Especially when you pair it with a sugar cane juice, like I did. But it is obviously super, super yummy. I haven’t yet had a chance to try the savory variety, which is often served stuffing-less, dipped in a nice curry sauce, but I really hope I get a chance to try some before I go! You can find these anywhere, my stop at Pearl’s Plaza was one of desperation in search of something sweet to end my day at a rather late hour, but I am sure there are tastier (and cleaner) options out there.

Pearl’s Center 
Location: 100 Eu Tong Sen St, Chinatown
Cost: $2

I am both embarrassed and proud to admit that that is only a small sampling of what I have eaten (snacked on, more accurately) during my short time in Singapore. I’ll spare you the mini cheesecakes from Mini One, the weird pastries and treats from the BreadTalk chain, and the insanely delicious Kouign Amann from Tiong Bahru bakery for another post. And I’ll see what else I can cram in before I leave!



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Gobusata desu!

Well hello there! It’s been awhile. I’ve decided to start maintaining this blog again, and as it’s been almost exactly a year since I left for a month-long trip to Japan and Thailand back in September 2013, it seems like an appropriate thing to start with. I’ll be posting as many pictures and tips as I can scrounge together from the trip, including a much-anticipated visit to Fushimi Inari-Taisha in Kyoto. It was as enchanting as you’d imagine…though it also seemed impossible to take a bad picture there, especially walking through the famous red-orange Torii that snake up the mountain to the main shrine.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

Fushimi Inari-taisha

 Which leads me to my first two tips, specifically for a visit to the temple from Kyoto:

111803326053_e5e00d2e24_z. Definitely get a cone of soymilk soft-serve from Kyozuan, located on the way up to Fushimi Inari from the train station. Do also turn it upside down like the server tells you to….it’s so thick, it won’t fall out of its weird triangular cone.

2. Wear bug spray! I was worried about bug bites on the Thailand portion of my trip, but was unprepared in Japan. The mosquitos up on that mountain are monsters, and our bug spray was uselessly stored in our bags at our guesthouse. We were there at dusk in autumn and literally had to leave early because of the bites, so be prepared!

More to come…

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Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

This beautiful, 500 year-old monastery was a perfect sanctuary from the unexpected summer rain shower that started right as we reached Belém. Still, we tore ourselves away fairly quickly as coffee and hot Pastéis de Belém were waiting for us just down the street.

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Mexico City Street Food: Chicharrones (Chicharrón)

Chicharrones, or chicharrón, can be a variety of different things throughout the Spanish-speaking world, though the type that I know best is the crispy, crackly, oh so bad for you kind that come in a plastic bag and can be found in the chip aisle of the local 7-11.

I always thought of chicharrones as being crazily, excessively bad for you and never really gave them the time of day. If potato chips were terrible, awful things to put in your body, how much worse would it be if you replaced the potato part of the chip with pig skin!? I recently learned, however, that the only reason I was able to resist these horribly wonderful treats my entire life was because I never actually tried them.

A couple weeks before venturing south of the border, I tried chicharrones for the first time. I had mixed emotions at first; they start out very chiplike, but once they’ve been in your mouth for a second, they melt into what they truly are: deep fried pieces of pig skin.

The chicharrones that I tried were about as gourmet as you can get. They are produced by 4504 Meats locally in San Francisco and they are awesssommmmeeeeeee. I know that seems to contradict the fact that I just said I had mixed feelings about them, but they grew on me really, really fast. They are salty and sweet, but more than that, they absolutely melt when you eat them. If you don’t like unctuous, porky tastes and textures, this is never going to be your thing, but if you do–oh man. You should try these.

Anyways, that is not the point of this post. The point is that by the time I went to Mexico City, I had had my first chicharrón experience, and it was positive. I was ready to try the real deal.

On the Saturday that I was in the city, I went down to San Ángel to go to the Bazar Sábado (which deserves a post all of its own). There were a number of food stalls set up all around the premises, and after enjoying a huitlacoche quesadilla (I knew it was fungus but I JUST found out it translates to English as “corn smut?!”) and an ice cream cone, which was much less fungal and way more delicious, I spotted this guy:

Oh hell yes. That is my ice cream resting on the corner of the cart, and those, my friends, are pieces of chicharrón the size of a man’s chest. The first picture in this post provides a close-up of this remarkable delicacy. I had only ever seen it chopped up into pieces so I was thrilled by the prospect of getting one giant piece that I could munch on, cartoon style. Alas, my porcine fantasy did not last. We ordered some (I forget how much it cost but it was very, very little), and this is how they were presented to us:

In a plastic bag, slathered in Valentina. I got over the fact that I didn’t get one big piece fast enough and snatched a piece out of the bag. After only having tried the 4505 version which is basically liquid pig in a very temporary fried state, these were a little dry to me at first, but still so, so good. The fungus quesadilla, double scoop ice cream, and pork rinds were a little much for me and my buddy, so we didn’t end up finishing these, but I’m sure if I had had an ice cold Victoria at the time I could have put them all away.

Picking up a bag of these on the street is a great way for a less adventurous eater to get a little authentic Mexico City excitement into their diet without encountering too many..ahem…problems. I would highly recommend taking the pork rind plunge if you find yourself in the DF anytime soon!

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Hanauma Bay, Oahu

IMG_0797, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

A quick car or moped ride from Honolulu, Hanauma is a beautiful little nature preserve where you can get really close to some pretty incredible sea life. I’ve definitely had more spectacular snorkeling/scuba diving experiences in my life, but it’s hard to beat the above-water scenery here when added to the accessibility from Honolulu. Be warned though; because it’s easy to get to, it’s pretty packed, though they do limit the number of people who can access the beach at one time.

Snorkle rentals were about $12 for everything (mask, snorkle, fins), and entrance to the park was $7.

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Porto, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

Porto was seriously so cool. It had such a unique, jumbled, old feel to it that I really haven’t experienced anywhere outside of Portugal. You can see from this picture the way that everything is laid out in a kind of messy yet totally beautiful manner, with all kinds of colors and textures and patterns all running together from one building to the next. It made exploring the town an absolute delight, like I was exploring a melancholy yet festive storybook town.

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Practical Souvenirs: Shopping for Peshtamals in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

My trip to Turkey was a quick one.

In planning our trip to Lisbon from New York, the only airline offering a fare that was even close to reasonably priced was Turkish Airlines, and, being a Turkish carrier, the majority of their international flights include a layover in Istanbul. Now, Istanbul is most definitely not on the way to Lisbon when you are coming from New York. In fact, it is almost laughably out of the way, but in the interest of saving about $400 on the airfare and getting in a short trip to Istanbul, we decided to take the plunge.

Our layover only gave us 21 hours in the city, so we just decided to see the best known sites and save the rest for another trip. After being there for less than a day I can now say that I will most definitely be back, because even the little taste that we got of the place was incredible.

After a ridiculously short night of sleep in a hot, smelly hostel, and a very early wake-up call facilitated by the azan of the Blue Mosque and some very noisy seagulls, we took off to make our rounds. Our first stop was a quick run-through of aforementioned Mosque, followed by a trip to Hagia Sophia, which was shockingly beautiful. Then we had an obligatory visit to the Spice Market, where we stuffed ourselves with free samples of Turkish delight and some fabulous, sweet apple tea before heading over to the main event. The Grand Bazaar.

I feel like I wanted to go to the Grand Bazaar before I ever really knew what it was. When I was little, the idea of a bazaar, any bazaar, was so exciting and so exotic that I always fantasized about the possibility of exploring one and picking up all kinds of wonderful things to bring home.

Unfortunately, after a week in Portugal where I eagerly snapped up all kinds of ham, canned fish, seasoned salt, and other goodies, I had very little room left in my one bag. In the end, that didn’t stop me, but the initial hope of finding the perfect compact souvenir from Turkey led me to a few stalls selling these:

After a bit of poking around, I learned that these are peshtamals (peştamal in Turkish), or hammam towels. They are basically vey soft, very thin towels that come in a variety of beautiful colors and shapes, and they can be used for just about anything, from actual towel to scarf to beach blanket to tablecloth. They are made to be portable, lightweight, absorbent, and fast drying, which makes them awesome for all kinds of things.

One of the most practical souvenirs I ever brought home was a picnic blanket that I bought on a whim in Paris and now use ALL THE TIME like six years later, so I thought this could be a very useful gift to myself. It also is overall a very practical travel item as it can be used for a million different things without taking up too much room in your suitcase. I’ve gotten used to traveling with some kind of lightweight cloth that can be used as a towel or blanket while traveling, starting first with a cheap sarong, then graduating to a more durable microfiber camp towel (quite possibly in one of the best purchases I’ve ever made), and it’s shocking how convenient it can be to have something like that with you on the road. I love my REI towel, but a peshtemal is a much more fashionable alternative, and almost as compact. If there is any possibility of having a beach visit or an impromptu picnic, either at home or while traveling, I love to have something like this in my bag.

I ended up buying a lovely, soft, white and light blue one and my friend picked up two more in other colors. They packed down into nothing and were the perfect soft blanket on the lonnnnng plane ride back to San Francisco. Even better, they were cheap! About $6 or $7 each, which, for the quality that we got, is a lot better than what you can find online in the states, though there seem to be some good deals available on Etsy.

My only regret is that I didn’t get more! I ended up buying a set of actual Turkish cotton bath towels that were not very practical for packing into a tiny suitcase, but I probably should have invested in a few more peshtemals instead. Right now I’m using mine as a throw in my bedroom, mainly because I don’t want to get the pretty little thing dirty, but I might have to bust it out and use it as an actual towel come summer.

Istanbul was absolutely overflowing with wonderful things that could be brought home as gifts, but if you’re looking for something easy and practical that’s not a food item, a peshtamal is the way to go! For more information on where to get them while at the Grand Bazaar, see here or here, or just look around for a while, you’re bound to see them all over the place.

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Port Tasting at Graham’s in Vila Nova de Gaia

Port Tasting, Graham’s, originally uploaded by jhoolko.

While in Porto, a trip across the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some Port tasting is pretty much a required activity.

If you’re not familiar with Port, it’s a tasty and very drinkable fortified wine that comes in a number of varieties and a rainbow of different shades. The Port Lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, as they are called, are easily reachable from Porto (via foot or gondola) and many offer inexpensive tours and/or tastings. If you are a Port aficionado or have never tried it, I highly recommend a visit. We stopped at a few, and this photo was taken at Graham’s Port lodge where we enjoyed a brief tour and hearty tasting in the company of a few fellow travelers.

For more information on the Graham’s Port Lodge and how to visit, click here.

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