The world’s other underrated cuisine

We in advertising consider Malaysian Tourism’s “Truly Asia” campaign as one of the best tourism campaigns in recent history. The line brands the country well, and captures its unique demographic mix. The campaign is over a decade-old, and yet it still sticks. On a trip to Palawan, where I was joined by two Malaysian friends, a boatman, who upon learning that they were Malaysian, smiled and said, “Oh, truly Asia”.

But, beyond all the sloganeering, does the Filipino know much about Malaysia?   Malaysia’s clear and consistent branding has proved to be successful in generating high awareness amongst Filipinos. Has it translated to interest and desire to experience Malaysia?

Let’s use Facebook as an indicator. I see frequent travels to Bangkok, Siem Reap, Vietnam, Singapore and Japan. Except for a few mountaineers who climbed the highest slopes of Kota Kinabalu, rarely do I see pictures of Kuala Lumpur or anywhere in Malaysia.

So I would ask some people, Why haven’t you visited Malaysia? Some never considered it because they didn’t know anyone from there. Others thought it was too fiercely Muslim, and therefore, constricting. Is it good for shoppingI don’t like Malaysian food. I’d rather do F1 in Singapore. And the common response: After Petronas Towers, what? 

Maybe that’s a cue for the Malaysia tourism authorities to address all those misgivings.

I’ll try to do my share in convincing the non-believers because I love Malaysia. Next to my Malaysian friends, who are as fun and silly as my Pinoy friends, it’s the food that always excites me about visiting Malaysia. The food is damn good.

Nothing’s more truly Asian than its cuisine – Chinese, Malay, Indian. Any self-respecting foodie ought to take a trip to Malaysia for the world’s other underrated cuisine (obviously, Filipino is the other one that deserves global recognition).

The fierce spices. The jolt. The holy mix of flavors. The variety. The stuff you can’t find in Manila. Above all, the passion that goes into the cooking. That’s what I love about Malaysian food.

Last week, I was in KL for work for the nth time and managed to squeeze in some free time with my dearest friends. I told them I didn’t want to eat fancy and expensive stuff. “Take me to the cheap, street food places” was my request.   After the obligatory dimsum and porkchop-over-rice at Din Tai Fung, this was my unforgettable food trip.

The curry fish head and fried chicken at the Indian stall in Lucky Garden.

The pork belly, claypot crabs, the spicy fish at Robson’s Heights.

Char Kuey Teow, Asia’s best pancit, in Jalan Imbi.

The ginger fish, prawns, and pata tim at Kheng Heong.

 

Breakfast at Lucky Garden.  Oodles of noodles that go well with local coffee served in retro china.

My top picks are the Indian curry fish head, Indian fried chicken, ginger fish and char kuey teow.

That’s enough reason for you to reconsider Malaysia.

Skiing: A Pinoy’s Pain

This much I know – I hate skiing. Because I cannot. And will never know how.

Let’s start with the gear. The clothes are heavy, prickly, too many. It’d be much easier to don a suit of armor. And those boots! It’s like wearing a heavier mound of plaster of Paris. The worst part is having to walk the stairs to go to the toilet in those boots. I wanted to scream “get out of the way” in Japanese to the kids and elderly who were holding on the handrail.

Those damn kids were gliding by me graciously on the slopes. That really pissed me off.   They were more agile and fearless. When you’re past 50, anything that your wobbly knees can’t control is cause for death.

I’ve seen Erwan Heussaff on his IG account, swooping and jumping on the snowy mountains of Niseko in Hokkaido. I could tell he loved the freedom. Freedom? I can find that on the beaches of Bohol.

Yet, I can claim I enjoyed the snow in Sapporo. The drive to the Ban Kei resort took all of 20 minutes from the city. Snow wasn’t falling when we left the hotel. When we were nearing the resort, snow started falling heavily. It was our Shining moment. Jack Nicholson’s drive to the Overlook hotel came to mind. The road bends and bends to a landscape that’s all white.   At that point, I was happy to be far away from home, in a land that’s so different from home.

By the way, we arranged the trip to the resort an hour before we took it. That’s why I love about Japan. It’s always ready to make tourists happy. However spur-of-the-moment, the arrangements were so organized. A car picked us up at the hotel, brought us to the resort, and picked us up five hours later. The cost covered transport, ski gear rental, four hours of skiing and lunch.

This view was priceless.

Would I go to another ski resort in Hokkaido? Of course! The view’s awesome. I’d go back for the sub-zero Sapporo Beer, too, as I watch those nimble little brats in envy.

Fave Hokkaido Food

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I suggest you research on what your specific destination is famous for.  Japan is into what-this-prefecture-is-great-at bit.  And each prefecture is obsessed with doing it better than the rest of Japan.

It’s okonomiyaki – the Japanese pizza or pancake – for Hiroshima. Takoyaki started in Osaka, and it’s done excellently there. Kyoto is known for tofu. Steaks in Kobe. Soba in Nagano. Goya Champuru for Okinawa. Tokyo has everything but I especially like the tonkatsu at Maisen and the yakitori at Birdland.

Hokkaido has the freshest seafood, and a lot more original creations that’ll keep you warm on a winter’s day. Here are my top picks:

Sushi in Otaru. This is the  platter we had at Masazushi Zenan, right across the Otaru canal and the main intersection.

 Uni at Uni Murakami. I was never big on uni until Sapporo. I find the uni in Manila too malansa (fishy), and it looks like Star margarine that was left out in the sun too long. But the guide books pointed us to Murakami, located in the Sapporo JR Station.

Sapporo JR Station
Sapporo JR Station

Murakami opens late and starts getting full after 5.30pm.  This is what I had.

The uni was the single most heavenly thing I tried in Sapporo. I also like the crab roe that came with the uni – I can still feel the roe popping in my mouth, releasing tons of flavors.

Soup Curry. This Hokkaido invention comes with vegetables, rice, lots of herbs and spices, and meat (chicken, burger steak, pork or lamb). Most soup curry places (we had ours at Hiri Hiri at the Sapporo Factory) allow you to choose the spice level you want. I chose 2 out of 5, which was still not spicy enough. In winter, you must get at least 3.

The best part is pouring the curry sauce over steaming-hot white Japanese rice!

Yakitori at Kushidori. This is a popular Sapporo chain serving a variety of grilled stuff. It’s packed with boisterous Japanese college students. That in itself is refreshing in the land of hushed conversations. My favorite is the tenderest skewered lamb I’ve ever tried. Everything there is great with Sapporo Beer, the best beer in Japan. food yakitori2

Scallops! They’re everywhere, and cheapest at Odori Park and the Nijo fish Market. They’re huge, sweet, juicy, tender, not at all rubbery. Great with lots of butter or soy.

The only thing that I wasn’t crazy about was the Hokkaido King Crab. Philippine crabs are still better, and perhaps it’s because of the tropical waters. The Philippine variety has better texture and that delicately sweet flavor. Lalo pang mas masarap ang mga baklang alimango natin. Hokkaido and the cold, stiffening weather could use some gayness.

 

 

 

Otaru, and Traveling Without A Plan

There is just a semblance of a plan when my travel companion James and I go on trips. So I’m not even sure if the people who’ve thought of joining our adventures would love our vagabonding. Planning is confined to booking the flight and hotel in advance, plus a little research on where to eat (Lonely Planet is a great resource, and the where-chef-eats book given by dear friends Candice and Dean Dee). For Sapporo, all we wanted to do was walk through Odori filled with ice sculptures, and eat Hokkaido uni and ramen. Then, it’s bahala na. We usually go with the flow and not race through it all. We get up late, even nap in between. It just works for us.

We had not heard of the port city Otaru until a Pinay migrant we met at the Snow Festival insisted that we take the 30-minute train ride from Sapporo. So we did, after having seen enough of Odori. She said it was by the sea, it was old, historic, romantic and served great sushi.

When we arrived at the Otaru Station on the JR train, we went straight to the tourism office and asked what we should see. We were told, “walk by the canal”.

It’s a ten-minute walk from the station.

The canal is just a canal and it’s not even as pretty as Venice’s. But it turns scenic when snow covers the centuries-old stone and brick warehouses standing along the canal.

Some have been turned into bars and shops.

From the canal, we took a detour to Sakaimachi Street which was the one of the high points of our trip. There you’d find restaurants serving fresh seafood (lots of scallops and king crabs), cafés, dessert places, souvenir shops and boutiques.

And there’s a museum-cum-department store filled with music boxes and glassware. Other than seafood, Otaru is known for such crafts.

If Hokkaido were Christian, this could easily be the Christmas town of Asia.  The Pinay at the fair was right – it was magical and romantic, indeed.

The stroll ended with sushi. I will never eat better-tasting sushi again after Otaru.

We capped the tour with vanilla-and-melon ice cream. Had it al fresco. Ice cream and sub-zero. Overkill, but awesome.

Now we know.  We’d plan for Otaru next time.    

Sapporo is always a good idea, in winter.

A Odori landmark:  the TV Tower
An Odori landmark: the TV Tower

Visiting Sapporo sans the giant ice sculptures must feel like going to Lucban Quezon without the kiping. So if you’re planning a trip there, do it in February. The festival runs for 7 days, and the sculptures change from year to year.

The sculptures are erected in three parks, but most of them are concentrated in Odori which is right in the center. This year’s main attraction just happens to be the Manila Cathedral.

Contrary to some reports, the Cathedral was sculpted by the Japanese and not Filipinos. I think we still don’t have the experience to sculpt pieces bigger than the kissing swans you see in local weddings.

The group that did the Cathedral chose a Malaysian landmark as peg for last year. This year, they thought it’d be a challenge to turn Philippine, as told by the Filipinos who set up a booth right next to it, where they sold Boy Bawang, Chippy, Gina Mango Juice and Aristocrat Barbecue, among others.

Odori is 13 blocks long and it’s filled with sculptures both large and small. The Japanese are cartoon-crazy, so it’s not a surprise to see familiar characters from Disney and anime.   It was just overwhelming.

The food is as big a highlight as the sculptures. It’s nice to have something warm and spicy as you shiver in below zero temperature.  Everything that Sapporo is famous for is sold there: miso ramen, crab, soup curry, scallops, grilled mutton and dairy, plus pickled stuff, ice cream, grilled corn, hotdog, takoyaki, peanuts, and international cuisine. 

I thought I could spend the entire trip exploring the sculptures in Odori. But seeing them during day and at night was actually enough. The magic wears off if you see too much of Darth Vader carved in ice. There’s more to Sapporo – there’s Otaru, in my next installment. This we learned by accident from the Pinay who was peddling Boy Bawang.

Japan again (but Sapporo this time)

Japan?  Again? That’s what my friends said when they learned that I booked a trip to Sapporo for the annual Snow Festival. Last week’s trip was my fourth to Japan. And I’m sure there’ll be more if I’d still be earning adequately for the next decade or so.

I love going back to places that I love, especially to see how much they’ve changed, and to live through what had endeared them to me again.   For Japan, it’s its strangeness. I know I’d never be able to blend there however I try. I can do that in the States, Thailand, Hong Kong or even Europe (just ape their color palette), but not in Japan. I also like the people – their kindness, sense of community, the order, discipline, their obsessive-compulsiveness (place your payment on the tray!). The surroundings and their behavior are just too alien from the Philippines. And it feels good to get lost in a place where everything is beautiful. In our homeland, ugliness seems to be the norm, and we always find ourselves desperately searching for rare snippets of beauty.

I also choose a destination that I’ve been longing to see. Sapporo has always fascinated since the time I saw clips of the Winter Olympics in the 70s. There was way too much snow. When all you saw as a child was sugarcane in the flat geography of Pampanga, snowflakes would matter to an aspiring globetrotter.

Sapporo isn’t easy to go to for us Filipinos. There are no direct flights from Manila to the New Chitose Airport in Sapporo (a charming little airport I must say; think Power Plant Mall with an airport appended). The options are Korean via Incheon, the Japanese carriers from Tokyo, and Cathay from HK. Those are the efficient ones. It’s also a long way to Sapporo. Our trip from Manila to Incheon to Sapporo took all of 12 hours, the layover included.

By the way, if you’re planning to go visit Sapporo during the week-long Snow Festival, which happens in early February, you better do it months in advance. It’s the biggest event in the whole of Hokkaido (one of Japan’s three main islands, and the northernmost), and tickets and hotels are hard to book within a few months ahead of the festival. I booked our hotel (Hotel Clubby Sapporo) as early as May 2014 on agoda.com.

So what must one do right after checking in a Sapporo hotel in winter?   First, put on layers and layers of clothing (down not wool, thermals, muffs, gloves, snow boots and anything excessively warm), then head for Odori Park. Odori is the city’s main park, carved right down the center, 13 blocks long, and the main arena for the giant ice sculptures.   The sculptures are amazing after dark, but even more breakthtaking during the day. You must spend more time exploring the sculptures during the day because of all the details. Besides, it’s way too colder to stroll in the park at night, in minus-7-degree weather.

Odori Park
Odori Park

The first destination is Ramen Alley in Susukino, off Odori. It’s a thin strip of a dozen or so ramen bars. Anthony Bourdain had been there to sample Miso Ramen, a Hokkaido invention. Bourdain is every foodie’s role model, and we just had to trace his ice-covered tracks.

Ramen Alley
Ramen Alley

Great with Sapporo Beer

The bowl of miso was a robust and tangy mix of spicy bean paste, butter corn, leeks, onions, bean sprouts, ground pork, cabbage, sesame seeds, white pepper, and chopped garlic. It was lovely. And heartwarming for a shivering Kapampangan on his first night in Sapporo.

Must have those spikes next time.
Must have those spikes next time.

Ananyana

Doljo Beach
Doljo Beach

To my surprise, the room I got at The Ananyana Resort in Bohol had no television.   I couldn’t remember the last time I checked into a place away from home that didn’t have one.  For a moment, that was disappointing.  Then I remembered what all the great travel writers had been preaching about:  all travel is about self-preservation.  We travel to get out of time and space.   We yearn for silence and stillness.  Unplugging is blissful.

Family rooms by the pool
Family rooms by the pool

Ananyana affords you all that.  There’s still wi-fi, though.  It’d be foolish to go all-out primal.

The resort run by the lovely and generous Emma Gomez sits on Doljo Beach in Panglao Island, a stone’s throw away from the more popular and denser Bellevue Hotel.  Those are the only two major resorts on the long stretch of Doljo.  It’s not uncommon for you to be swimming alone in the ocean.  You can’t do that in Alona Beach that had turned into a mini-Boracay Station 2.

Ananyana only has ten rooms – all spacious and tastefully designed.  If you’re travelling with a large group, take the family rooms right behind the pool, or rooms 9 and 10 which are lofts.

Lofts in the foreground
Lofts in the center

My four friends and I were there for four nights.  At first we thought we couldn’t be dining all-day in one place.  So we had to sample Bellevue’s food (overpriced), and the cheap breakfast at a shack called Muro-Ami (sodium showcase).  Then Typhoon Signal No. 2 Seniang hit the island on Day 3.  We had no choice but to stay in our resort and dine there all day.  We ordered every item in the menu, and everything was fabulous – from chicken inasal, the glass noodles, Bolognese, curry fish to the pudding.  Monotony was gastronomy.

Where all the all-day eating happened
Where all the all-day eating happened

I’ll speak no more and let these other pictures the beauty of Bohol, and Ananyana’s allure: solitude and luxury.  The two things us weary urban creatures cherish.

Jagalchi Palengke Tour

It’s not something I do in the Philippines.  After all, just how clean and interesting do they get around here?  But when I’m overseas, I love visiting fish markets.  I like seafood and it’s the best place to satisfy my craving for the freshest catch.  And it’s also a great place to capture local color.

vendors outside Jagalchi
vendors outside Jagalchi

 

The view by the ocean.  The market lies near the hills of Gamcheon.
The view by the ocean. The market lies near the hills of Gamcheon.

 

We bought the catch from this ajumma, then had it cooked.  Dining was at the second floor.
We bought the catch from this ajumma, then had it cooked. Dining was at the second floor.

The Jagalchi Market in Busan, Korea’s largest, is a must-go for seafood lovers and photography enthusiasts.  It’s huge, clean, colorful, and strange.  Where else can you find penis fish?  Octopus that’s eaten live?

My friends and I bought oysters, abalone, live octopus, and some other fish that don’t swim in our tropical waters.  Our bill was half of what it’d cost us at Dampa in Pasay.

 

the penis fish
the penis fish

 

Yes, I took a bite of the octopus even if I’m allergic to the cephalod variety.  My friends loved it, but I’m sticking to stuff that don’t squiggle in my mouth.

 

Asia’s artsiest town

Our Malaysia friend Tony had insisted that we travel from Seoul to Busan when we were finalizing arrangements for our company trip.  I didn’t know much about Busan.  I only knew about the annual film festival, and the Asian Games held there years ago.  And I wasn’t about to learn more about that city.  I’ve always liked surprises.

And I loved what I saw!   If you’re in Seoul, take the 2.5-hour train ride to Busan.  The KTX express train is as nice as the Shinkansen.  And it costs much, much less (around 2.5k pesos).   Philippine Airlines has direct flights to and from Busan.

The best part thing about Busan is Gamcheon.  It’s dubbed as Asia’s artsiest town.  The pictures below will tell you why.

I’ve read that the Gamcheon used to be a poor little village where refugees settled after the Korean War.  They belonged to a religious sect that adhered to the principle of yin and yang, and the philosophy of great polarity.  They built their small houses in tiers — not one would obstruct another.

It was only about five years ago that the community and students from Busan started a makeover, painting the panorama with cheerful blues, pinks, yellows and other pastel colors.  They had art installations.  They converted some houses into mini galleries.

You don’t need to pay for a tour to explore Gamcheon.  Just take a taxi or the metro from downtown Busan.  Head straight for the information center where you’d be given a map and booklet ($2).  The booklet (like the Starbucks planner booklet) challenges you to have 6-8 circles stamped.  It’ll force you to cover the entire village and find the stops through narrow stone alleyways.  Once you have all the circles stamped, you get a free gift from the tourism center.

It’s fun to get lost through all the climbing.  If you ever get desperate, you can always ask for directions from the senior citizens lounging by the main alleys.  They serve as Gamcheon’s tour guides and they speak English quite well (rare in the whole of Korea).

If you ever get tired, there are pitstops and cafes everywhere.

Gamcheon has been one of my most interesting adventures as a traveler.  You must try it.

The Streets of Seoul

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The greatest cities in the world are either old ones that have managed to preserve or enhance their centuries-old architectural heritage, and meshed them with the new.  Think London, Kyoto, even Singapore.   And there are those that had to be rebuilt into ultra-modern cities, with a distinct character in mind.  Seoul, a wasteland after the war in the 50s, is a perfect example of the latter.

There’s a certain obviousness in the way the city is transforming.  It seems to be obsessive about having a global image that can rival Tokyo and Shanghai.  Everything is art-directed: outdoor signs, tall media poles, benches, pitstops, bins, footpaths, even hawker stalls.  

I think the most stunning results are in retail.  Sure, there are malls, but the artistic energy is coming free-standing stores like the ones in Myeongdong.

I especially like how roses are grown all over.  Nobody dares.

My favorite part of Seoul is Hongdae, the university district.  You climb its winding streets and are greeted by these.

I can imagine this beautiful city transforming into a flora spectacle in early spring when sakura trees are in full bloom.  If you must visit Seoul, time it with the sakura season.  It must be a shopping experience like no other.

After seeing all these, I weep for Manila.  Will we ever have a plan?