Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

Yup, I know that is a mouthful. And to top it, we had to wait for more than 20 mins to get a table for 2. But boy, was it worth it!

The first time I had Xia Long Bao was on the last day of a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. And the taste lingers. Xia Long Bao are steamed dumplings that have warm broth inside along with the more usual shrimp/meat mixture. The sheer mix of flavours and textures that this gives your mouth is crazy. I love it.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mecca of Xia Long Bao. And since they make it so well, they have now spread everywhere in Asia including to Singapore. On Saturday I went to their outlet at the Paragon Mall in Orchard.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting this place and accompanying me for an awesome meal.

For a useful lesson on how to eat Xia Long Bao, click on the above photo.

Arun Veembur

I will never meet Arun Veembur – and it is very much my loss. Arun was an intrepid traveller who died earlier this week in a tragic accident while trekking near the remote city of Dali in the Yunan province of China. He was just 28.

Arun started out as a journalist with an english newspaper in Bangalore. On a trip to India’s north-east, he came across the story of the Stilwell road (Ledo road), the tough mountainous road that the british built in the backdrop of WWII. And was hooked. Soon he gave up his job and went to Kuming the chinese outpost where he spent the next few years. He was researching for a book on the Ledo road and in the years that he was there became a bit of an institution.

More on Arun:

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/35518/bangalorean-dies-china.html

http://newshyderabad.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/young-writer-and-intrepid-traveller-dies-in-china/

http://www.dalichina.info/

Chinese accountability

On my first visit to China a couple of months ago, I realised that everything we have all heard about China is pretty much right. The main point being that it has awesome infrastructure (clean, wide roads, for god’s sake – how do they do it!).

But the real eye-opener was the undercurrent of government accountability  that one noticed. A couple of simple examples illustrates this.

At the Shanghai international airport, every immigration officer’s desk has a little widget on it (a little screen with two small buttons next to it), kept facing the traveller. Once the immigration officer processes your visa, they press a button. As soon as that button is pressed, the little screen lights up and asks you to ‘rate’ your experience with the immigration official – was the official’s work satisfactory or not? In effect, the traveller is treated as a ‘customer’ and you are being asked to rate your ‘purchase experience’. Presumably the results of this go into the relevant immigration officer’s appraisal systems and therefore is of importance to them.

Now, Roads. I went to Hangzhou, China’s 6th largets city (ie. not it Shanghai or Beijing). The roads across this city were wide and clean and the only roads in India which I can compare these to are in Lutyens’ New Delhi.How can a relatively small city in China consistently maintain all its roads at a quality comparable to the less than 0.5% of India’s best roads? The answer I thin is again, accountability. Having good roads is important for a country and its citizenry and therefore is important for its local government. Remember, city roads are made and maintained by the local government of the city and clearly they believe they need to do this job well.

Popular discourse in India & the west seems to suggest that China is ‘un-democratic’ and even ‘dictatorial’ and therefore does not represent the aspirations or needs of its people. Maybe. But there is no doubt that somewhere in the Chinese system, there is a regard for the the ordinary man that one misses sorely in India.

Researching Holidays Online

ASIA

 

Here is why I love the business I am in – because it piggybacks on the biggest thing in Travel since the Wheel (ok – mild exaggeration, but still…)

The Internet has become the most popular medium for Chinese travellers seeking information about their trips, according the latest Nielsen China Outbound Travel Monitor. The Nielsen survey found that travellers will search for conventional destination information ahead of their trips (61 percent of leisure trips taken), and then turn to online travel discussion forums (48 percent) to fine-tune their plans. This suggests that opinions and comments about travel experiences posted to online forums are nearly as likely to influence travellers’ decisions as the destination websites themselves. Conventional travel agents were approached on only two in five travel occasions.

The Nielsen survey also found that travellers were much more likely to recall seeing Internet advertising for travel destinations, compared to seeing travel advertising on other mediums. Close to 70 percent could recall seeing travel advertisements on the Internet, with only four in 10 recalling seeing a travel advertisement in a magazine or newspaper, at a travel agent or on TV and radio.

Read the full article here..

Bruce Lee and Me by Brian Preston

And, as is usual with life, I have just read another travel book that forces me to contradict the position I took in my last post. I now realise that there is another way to get a good travel book. Which is to have a good travel theme (plus of course, the obligatory, good writer).

Preston explores the world of oriental Martial Arts in this book. Which is a cool subject to write about, since it probably meets all of the criteria of your average avaricious publisher. The subject is of interest to many people across the world (“more people interested means more people buy the book, you dummy”), it involves travelling to ‘exotic’ places, has multiple situations that allow the writer, and therefore the reader vicariously, to careen from undisguised scepticism to wide-eyed wonder within the same page and offers the writer numerous opportunities to take digs at himself (a travel-book staple these days, methinks).

And for all of those reasons, it works. Read it.

Using chopsticks

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I must have been about 4 or 5 years old, when I sat with my father in a darkened movie hall watching a grainy-white documentary that showed strange men using sticks to pull up strings off the table to stuff it in their mouths. And I loved it right away. By the time I got to my teens, I could not think of anything more sophisticated than insouciantly picking up my roast pork with chop sticks while holding a conversation with an extraordinarily gorgeous Japanese lady. Of course, it hasn’t happened quite that way (the Japanese lady part that is) – but I still think it is way cool to eat with chop sticks. So, a few years ago, I decided to learn how to do it.

It is pretty simple really. Here is how you do it.

You grasp the chopsticks within the fingers of your right hand (ie. if you are genetically left-handed; otherwise, hold it in your left hand). Then push them into a bowl of noodles (always a bowl, never a plate). The chopsticks will immediately come off your fingers. Next, you hold them a bit more steady and try to dig out the noodles harder. The whole caboodle will come out of the bowl and fall on the table. Keep repeating this till your companions at the table (in my case, a wife and two incredulous little boys who could’nt understand why they were not allowed this kind of fun) ask you to go away. Do this for about a month. You will crack it. I did – so I know you can too.

Yup, now I can hear the question. Is there a simpler way of learning to use chopsticks? Unfortunately, No. But, the good part is, this will seem really simple when you realise you need to use chopsticks and the chinese soup spoon simultaneously to get the sang-froid look. That, my friend, is another story.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food>>

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(Both photos in the post, courtesy: http://www.chinatownconnection.com/how-to-use-chopsticks.htm)

India & China – 2.6 billion people

As many of you would have figured out by now, I am besotted by most things Chinese, starting with Beijing Roast Duck. It is one of my ambitions to spend two separate periods of 6 months each, wandering across India & China. One to re-discover my own country. The second to figure out what is to me the most intriguing other country on earth.

I just found a site which focuses on only Indian & China. Called http://www.2point6billion.com/, it has certainly piqued my curiosity and I intend to dig into it over the next few days.

But I have been writing a fair bit of stuff on India and China in this blog. Here are my posts on Indian Food & Chinese Food. And, here are all my posts on India and China.

(One among the 3 trillion videos in cyberspace on India vs China. I selected it for its pretty anchors).

Size Matters

(A Youtube video of Pokhara, Nepal)

Trips to Nepal (some time ago) & Hong Kong (recently) have convinced me that I am a ‘size matters’ kind of person. And, please cut the snigger – I am talking about dress sizes and currency values here.

For as long as I can remember, I have travelled to countries where One Indian Rupee converts into less – a lot less – than one local dollar/drachma/whatever. Essentially, the Indian Rupee was always ‘weak’. So how low or foolish or insecure I felt in a country was directly correlated to the weakness of the Indian Rupee at that time, against that currency.

And then I got to Nepal. For the first time in my life, I was faced with the shocking reality that One Indian Rupee could actually fetch you more than One of the host currency. I puffed my chest, walked with long strides, complained freely about the strange food and funny people and generally became a pest. At which point I realised why western travellers appear in a certain way to Indians. If I were an American or Brit and got 40 Rupees or 80 Rupees for every Dollar or Pound I converted, I know how I would behave. Given that, the Americans and the Brits are a reasonably well behaved lot in India. So, unfortunately for some of us, the size of the wad of notes you get everytime you convert currency is one of the strongest ‘mood creators’ in international travel. A fairly compelling case, I would think, for quickly establishing a worldwide single currency system. Mr Ban, I hope you are listening.

Hong Kong brought me another perspective on size. I walked into Marks & Spencer and asked for a shirt. The shop girl looked me up & down (actually she was at least 85 years of age, so there was no real danger) and said ‘XXL I think’. Wow. In India I am a firm ‘M’. So, it was great to swagger into an XXL. And I had discovered the next ‘mood creator’ of international travel, which fortunately for some of us, occasionally works to our advantage. Once again, this helps the westerners, but also helps Africans & Pacific Islanders. So that is ok.

If you are from a country occupied by a small-built race with a weak currency, a sense of humour might be an imperative for international travel. On the other hand, if you are big-built and have a strong currency, please go easy on the whining. If you are somewhere in between, grow-up. You need to find other pegs for your self esteem. How about playing kho-kho well?

China Road

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(photo of cover of China Road by Rob Gifford)

It was while reading China Road by Rob Gifford that I took off for Hong Kong. Got back and resumed reading it. Gifford travels down Route 312, the huge east-west road that transsects China. No doubt about it, this is a dream journey in more ways than one. Certainly goes into my ‘to do’ list.

The book tries to predict the future of China & comes to a simple, compelling conclusion. The future of China lies in the hands of its peasants and they are restive. All through China’s history, it was the peasantry that rose to overthrow existing systems – remember it was the peasantry that Mao galvanised to sweep in with communist rule. Therefore, if the lives of ordinary peasants do not see improvement, China’s current system is at threat. And the overall sense I get is that venal local officialdom with no accountability is the real pain point for the Chinese people, particularly its peasant-folk. So interestingly, low-level corruption is a dangerous rot in China, much like it is in India.

Click here to read all my China posts.

Hong Kong : Disneyland vs Ocean Park

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All those who travel to Hong Kong with kids will have to face this one. Which should be a higher priority – Ocean Park, the older amusement park or Disneyland, the scion of a more famous family? Here is my take, having done this with two kids in tow a couple of weeks ago.

If you have younger kids, shoot for Disneyland first. If your kids are bit older (say 12+), Ocean Park is a better first stop. Ocean Park is a lot more outdoorsy, has a few scary rides (check out the Abyss), a really nice 3-level aquarium called the Atoll Reef and puts on a cool Dolphin & Sea lion show twice everyday. If the weather is good, this is a great (however, if the Hong Kong sun is out in force, the kids are likely to get exhausted fast). Hong Kong Disney on the other hand is more compact and has more stuff inside air conditioned comfort, allowing you to beat the normally sultry weather. The highlights of Disney are the various shows they put on. Do not miss Mickey’s Philarmagic & the Golden Mickey.

On the whole, if you have time, do both. This will keep the kids quiet when you go on your shopping rampage.

Here are 2 other suggestions for Hong Kong – one on Food and the other on a Beach.

And click here for all my posts on City Vacations around the world.

Dim Sum

Dim Sum photo

(photo from : http://www.jenzcorner.com/gallery/dragoncity.jpg)

Fuk Yeun Hotpot seafood restaurant (yes, seriously – that is the name) in Mongok, on Kowloon island introduced me to the pleasures of the Hong Kong Dim Sum. The last time I had Dim Sum somewhat close to this good was in the chinese restaurant at The Oberoi in Delhi. Dim Sums come in various types, shapes & sizes. Steamed buns, fried spring rolls, dumplings of all persuasion, veggie concoctions et al. Fuk Yuen rolled out the whole lot. And the real surprise in the package was this Capsicum & Eggplant number.

Moving on. For me, Wontons are the royalty of dim sum. Delicate dough hiding clever concoctions of meats & seafoods steamed in Bamboo steamers. Seems the cantonese word for Dim Sum also means ‘swallowing clouds’ which I guess is as apt a description as possible. Trust the ancients to get it right.

In all of this, I could not get to try out the vast array of live seafood on offer at Fuk Yuen. Tanks filled with lobsters, shrimp, clam, garoupa were all, unfortunately left behind. Next time.

Click here for all my posts on Chinese Food.

And, click here for all my posts on Hong Kong & China.

Silvermine Bay Beach

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Here is the confession : an out-of-the-closet beachaholic like me can simply never have his fill of littoral landscapes. So last week I hit a number of beaches in Hong Kong The pick of the lot was in Lantau which is one of the outlying islands of Hong Kong. Took a placid 50 minute ferry ride among the Hong Kong islands to reach Silvermine Bay Beach. Unfortunately the first sight you see as you walk off the pier in Lantau is a McDonalds. But give time and the calm little island grows on you. The beach in Lantau is picturesque. If you are keen to float in a kayak in the south china sea ringed by green mountains with only the sound of small waves for company, this is the place to go. And the fact that the silvermine bay beach is just next to Canton’s quaintest ‘cooked food market’ makes the experience just that bit more edgy.

Here are links to two of my other recent beach visits :

Swimming with turtles – Caribbean

Watching the whales – Australia

Singapore vs Hong Kong

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(Chinchalok egg, a Peranakan/Nyonya dish – photo from Singapuradailyphoto)

The raging question of our times is obviously : Is Singapore or Hong Kong better for street food? Standing on various corners of Causeway Bay in Hong Kong earlier today, I can see the battle to be pretty close. On the whole, my guess is Singapore is a length ahead for two reasons. The first is the fact that Singapore street food offers 4 distinct cuisines (Chinese, Malay, Indian & Peranakan/Nyonya) whereas Hong Kong has mostly chinese (although Cantonese + all other great chinese cuisines are on offer). The other is the wide range of food courts that Singapore offers for hungry travellers. These food courts combine the visual variety of many different cuisines with the legendary squeaky-clean environs of that city state. Yup, one length ahead.

Incidentally, there is a rumour that Michelin Guide is on its way to Asia.

Gopi Manjoori

I was at the ET Awards do in Bangalore last evening. Everyone but everyone was talking about the big daddies of the future world – China & India. How they will drive growth, how they will reshape geopolitics, how they will change everything. The mood was generally upbeat, as it would be when there is an armchair discussion inside a five star room full of well fed & ‘well drunked’ rich men (mostly).

But I view things with altogether more concern. For I can see the big battle brewing between these two powers that I think will shake the foundations of world civilisation as we know it. I am referring of course to the battle to become the world’s epicurian default setting. In the next decade, lightly done & midly aromatic chinese food with fresh vegetables & mixed meats will meet the the sensory overload of fried + spiced, strongly vegetarian Indian cuisine in an all-out war for hungry mouths worldwide. And the best part is, I have no clue which will win.

But in a ressurective spirit of Panchsheel, let me propose a partnership. As all of us who have travelled to the deepest interior of our land know, there is a diabolical dish whipped up by ‘chotu’ chefs across a million dhabas, that has the potential to bring these two warring parties to the table and create a whole new cuisine that can quite effectively take over the world without shedding an unnecessary drop of ketchup. I am obviously referring to Gopi Manjoori (nee Gobi Manchurian), that versatile creation that I can never have enough of.

Top 5 holidays for winter 2007

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(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)

So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?

In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).

Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.

  • Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
  • Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
  • Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
  • Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
  • Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.

Peking Duck in Dixon Street

Dixon Street is the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. And with Carolynn, a Singaporean-Chinese as a guide, I landed up at a family-restaurant for a meal. We shuddered at the start – literally. Apparently, right under the floorboards of the restaurant was this massive exhaust fan which boomed & rattled a portion of the floor. So we shifted.

The Peking duck was fine (incidentally, click here to see an earlier post with an interesting Peking Duck video). The first course was the crispy skin, served with just the right amount of meat underneath. The second course was a bit different from the usual – the rest of the duck was served up in an interesting concoction of bean sprouts.

And I was told that, “for an Indian, you are ok with chopsticks” – which was a bit of a relief, considering the number of man-hours spent on training.

Sydney is among the 10-odd china towns I have been to – it is one of the cornier lists I keep. Carolynn who travels a hell of a lot on business, tells me that San Fransisco is probably the best Chinatown in the world. So that is one more objective for me.

Here is another Chinese food video I found on Youtube – this time of Fried Squid Balls being made in Sydney’s Chinatown.

World’s best restaurants

The Restaurant magazine has listed Bukhara at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton among the world’s top 50 restaurants and the best restaurant in Asia. I have done my rounds of Bukhara & yes, it is a pretty good restaurant; but the best in Asia? Proves once again that nifty ‘selling’ is a key component of such awards.

I consider myself a foodie – for me nothing in a restaurant is as important as its food. Not the ambience, not the location, nothing else. Which is why I believe that the best food in the world is still authentic street food. So, maybe Bukhara does stew its Dal for 18 hours & maybe Bill Clinton could’nt have enough of it. But for an authentic “royal” experience of food in Northern India, I would much rather trawl the streets of Delhi or Lucknow.

Incidentally, India is one among the 15 countries to figure in the top 50 list. France tops with 12 restaurants in the top 50.

Niche, influential, defiant

These 3 words were written recently to describe both Adrian Zecha, the founder of the Aman Resorts chain and Steve Jobs of Apple. If I have benchmarks, they are it. Their businesses revolve around building lifestyle services created out of a wonderful personal aesthetic.

Obviously, neither of them run the biggest businesses in their chosen fields. Apple is so much smaller than Microsoft – but, given the Mac, the ipod & the iphone, can there be any comparison? Similarly, all the rooms of all the resorts owned by the resolutely niche Aman Resorts can probably be fitted ito a large chain hotel in one place. But again, no product in world hospitality can be easily compared to an Aman.

Sorry to gush – but that is the way I would want to make products – as things of beauty.

Gates vs Jobs : check out this cool animation video

Tradition in clothes

One of the definite casualties of the sameness world we are creating, is the traditional garment. Almost a decade ago, on a trip to London, I was standing in front of Charing Cross station gazing at an unending stream of black wool with the occasional light blue, when suddenly I was struck by this huge burst of colour. I turned to find an elegant African lady resplendent in the most colourful (traditional african) dress I have ever seen. Made me a convert to the idea that the world needs to desperately cling on to its traditional clothes.

Whether it is the Cheongsam in East Asia, the Saree in the Indian sub-continent or the Thobe in Arabia, all of them impart that element of ethnic cultural elegance that no import can ever do. It seems to me that we must do everything to ensure that these clothes remain used as practical daily-wear.

And it was with this thought that I bravely bought a traditional chinese shirt/jacket on my last trip to Singapore. I wanted to get this wonderful, wine red creation, but in the face of strong opposition settled for a blue one. Love it.

While on the subject of clothes, here is a video of a Chinese fashion show in Shanghai. Not that this video has much to do with the subject of this post. But the women look nice, the colours bright and the Bund in Shanghai is where I plan to go to write my book. So…

(Incidentally, for all those following the huge controversy over setting up Special Economic Zones in India, did you know that the Bund in Shanghai was probably the world’s first SEZ).