Category Archives: Food

Some takeaways from our trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam

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The Hong Kong skyline

In late May/early June, my girlfriend Amanda and I visited Asia for the first time together. We’d been on a few other trips: Miami, New York, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic. While those were all solid vacations, none involved a flight longer than five hours or a stay longer than a week.

Asia is a different beast. An Asian vacation requires a lot more planning and a lot more travel time. And once you factor in the time it takes to get over jet lag, I’d peg two weeks as the bare minimum. The longer, the better, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze an Asia trip into a single week.

Our itinerary consisted of eight nights in Hong Kong (with day trips to Macau and Shenzhen) and six in Vietnam, including Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Hoi An. With Toronto as my barometer, when you travel within North America and Western Europe, a lot of it feels familiar to me. The bars and restaurants feel familiar. The way the traffic moves feels familiar. The shopping feels familiar. The culture feels familiar.

In my mind, to truly feel like you’re in a different world, to step out of your comfort zone, and to experience that uncomfortable yet exhilarating thing we call culture shock, you have to leave the Western world. With that in mind, here are some takeaways from our trip:

Hong Kong

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  • People are glued to their smartphones. While this phenomenon exists around the world, I noticed a few differences in Hong Kong:
    • Smartphones work on the subway so people are never without service.
    • Hong Kong people love to send and receive voice memos instead of writing text messages.
    • Many people have an iRing on their phone, a metal ring that attaches to the back of their devices. The idea is that you slide your finger through it while on your phone. The purpose is two-fold: You’re less likely to drop your phone and it functions as a stand so your phone can be upright on a surface. A nice, little invention.
    • It seems like everyone has a portable charger. You’ll often see a wire going from the phone into a bag, providing a steady stream of juice.
  • Hong Kong has more than seven million people in just 1,104 km², the second-highest population density in the world. So you know things will be a bit tight. For example, our hotel room was a mere 200 square feet. The bed took up most of the space!
  • They have one of the best subway systems I’ve ever seen. Clean, efficient and punctual. It feels like the year 3000 compared to the TTC, Toronto’s system.
  • It’s all about the Octopus Card, a charge card that works on subways, buses, and also at many convenience stores, restaurants and supermarkets. Once you arrive in HK, picking up one of these should be the first thing you do.
  • In certain areas of Hong Kong, especially Hong Kong island, you can feel the wealth oozing out of every corner. All you have to do is walk into the three-storied Apple Store or into a bar in Lan Kwai Fong for a $15 beer. No surprise here since HK is one of the largest financial centres in the world.
  • There’s 7/11s everywhere. And they sell beer. Enough said.
  • Shopping is like a religion in HK. Their malls are palatial and their streets markets seem to go on forever. Be prepared to bargain at the markets but there’s no point at the malls. Oh, and Uniqlo quickly became one of my favourite clothing stores. It can’t come to Toronto soon enough.
  • There are always little differences when you visit a fast food chain in another country and HK was no exception. Like how McDonald’s gives its drinks in individual plastic bags instead of the cardboard tray we’re used to. Or how you can order a Lychee McFizz drink or a matcha green tea ice cream from a Mickey D’s. Or how plastic gloves are a default item when you visit a KFC.
  • Speaking of food, I had the best dim sum I’ve ever tasted at a place called Tim Ho Wan, apparently the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world.
  • Oh, and it’s hot. Damn hot.

Vietnam

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  • The first thing that struck me when arriving in Vietnam from Hong Kong was the difference in wealth. Exit the skyscrapers and the futuristic public transit and enter a simpler (and decidedly poorer) way of life. In Vietnam, it’s not uncommon to see an entire family (i.e. dad, mom, two kids) on a scooter. We never entered a Vietnamese home but I imagine that most would be modest (likely) with no AC. I’ll get to the heat later.
  • Speaking of scooters, they are friggin’ everywhere. Much more so than cars or bicycles, scooters are the mode of transportation of choice in Vietnam. And it’s not even close. It’s a legitimate sport to cross the street amidst the sea of scooters coming at you like an army of two-wheeled assassins. But like anything else, you got used to it. The key seemed to be crossing the road with confidence. Don’t be afraid to cut someone off. Otherwise, you’re never getting to the other side. Timidity won’t get you anywhere in this case.
  • On our first night in Hanoi, a lady selling what can best be described as Vietnamese timbits stuck one an inch from my face, repeating “Buy, buy.” A bit frazzled, I grabbed the thing and stuck it in my mouth. Then she asked for money. I felt this wasn’t deserved since she basically forced it down my throat. Anyway, she walked off none too happy. Much like crossing the street, being timid doesn’t work with those trying to sell you things in Vietnam. They can be some pushy, aggressive mofos. The best approach is a firm “No” without making eye contact. They’ll leave you alone after that. Two of the oddest places where people tried to sell us things: From a rowboat while we were on Ha Long Bay, and from someone on a scooter who started driving beside us. I think she was selling a map. It did not feel safe.
  • The food! So fresh, so delicious and so affordable. There seems to be a pho spot on every corner. A banh mi sandwich will cost you a couple bucks, if that. You just really can’t go wrong with Vietnamese cuisine. One of my faves. img_1536
  • I bought a t-shirt that had the above on it and it’s definitely true. The best word to describe the driving and traffic in Vietnam is chaotic. But it’s controlled chaos. They somehow make it work.
  • Definitely build in some time to pick up some custom-made clothes. There’s something about having clothes made for you that just makes you feel like a king. And for high-quality clothing, you’ll pay a much lower price than what you’d pay in Canada. I picked up a three-piece suit and two dress shirts for around $400 CDN.
  • Last thing is the heat. Coming from Hong Kong, we couldn’t really imagine a hotter climate. But yep, Vietnam managed to top it. Heat stroke was narrowly averted on a few occasions. So don’t forget to hydrate. And no, beer doesn’t count. Although you should definitely have some of that too.
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The realness of Eddie

Eddie Huang loves food. Eddie Huang loves hip-hop. Eddie Huang loves basketball. Eddie Huang loves weed. Eddie Huang loves women.

And Eddie Huang does not give a fuck what you think.

For the most part, Eddie Huang figured out all of these things at a young age. But after reading Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, his autobiography about going from a culturally-conflicted kid to the confident and successful man he is today, it’s clear that the last one materialized over time. As T. Swift would say, haters gonna hate.

Authenticity is the most admirable of human qualities. It’s also why I find myself so drawn to Eddie’s story. In my mind, there’s nothing more attractive than when people are true to themselves, when they don’t put on airs. Sure, we all have different tastes; that much is clear and unavoidable. But the hardest thing in life is to figure out who you are and own it. As the late Stuart Scott said, just do you. The story of Eddie Huang is about somebody finding himself, and owning the fuck out of it.

Side note: Given his restaurant, his book, his YouTube series and now an ABC sitcom based on his life, Eddie just being Eddie seems to have worked out just fine.  

In a story relatable to many children of immigrants, Eddie, now 32, grew up conflicted. On the one hand, there were his Taiwanese-born parents, speaking Mandarin and eating traditional Chinese food, even famously making him take it to school for lunch. On the other hand, there was America, with its fast-food restaurants, rap music and capitalistic outlook.

From an early age, he met other Chinese people that he simply didn’t relate to. They were shy and quiet. They were safe and obedient. They were all studying to be doctors or lawyers. All of their parents approved of them. It took him some time but he eventually realized he wasn’t down with all that. He wanted to speak his mind. He didn’t want to be shy or quiet. Inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z, he wanted to blaze his own path.

There is an interesting contrast to Eddie. In spite of his brash way of speaking, there is no doubting his intelligence. After all, before leaving the corporate world behind, he was an associate at a law firm in New York City. On Huang’s World, his excellent travel/food YouTube series, he may curse like a sailor and drop rap references ad nauseam. But these are offset by thoughtful and intelligent comments on the places he visits and on humanity in general. He can seemingly find a way to relate to anybody, no matter their country, language or culture. His street smarts are off the charts.

The beauty of Eddie’s story is its universality. You don’t have to be the child of Chinese immigrants to relate to it. You don’t even need to be a child of immigrants at all! You just need to be human.

In an age of FOMO and a world with maybe too many options for people, there’s no wonder that people are confused. If you start a family, you miss hanging with the boys. If you hang with the boys, you miss the comfort and intimacy of a true partnership. Maybe your parents want you to be somebody you’re not. Maybe one group of friends has different values than another. Maybe you’re not sure if you fit in with your colleagues.

In other words, life is hard. It can be messy and chaotic. It can pull you from different directions. Choices are everywhere and the correct decisions are rarely apparent. What Eddie has taught me is that you can’t please everyone. You can’t meet everybody’s expectations. Just make sure to be real to yourself, even though it may take a while to figure who exactly that is.

 

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Restaurants, the Internet age and why hype can be a dangerous thing

Khao San Road is a Thai restaurant in downtown Toronto. It has a four-star rating on Yelp (based on 352 reviews) and a 93 percent rating on Urbanspoon (based on 1,035 votes). Some impressive numbers, indeed. Plus, when you Google “Best restaurants in Toronto,” this Thai joint figures into the top-five (and sometimes top-three) of most people’s lists.

These are the reasons why they had a 45-60 minute wait at about 9:30 pm this past Saturday. These are the reasons why they can charge double what other Thai restaurants in the city charge. These are the reasons why we chose to eat there. And finally, these are the reasons why most people choose to eat where they do, no matter what city they live in.

But should they be?

We ended up getting take-out that night as their 10 pm closing time essentially guaranteed us that we weren’t getting a table. After waiting 30 minutes to get our food, it was time to pay. We spent more than $30 on two dishes: Pad Thai (pictured above) and green curry with rice. Not exactly exotic, right? These are standard Thai dishes that we could have found at any of the other countless Thai restaurants in the city. For half the price and a fraction of the wait! Frankly, I felt a little ripped off.

The food? It was fine but not worth the money nor the wait. In my mind, for $16, I better be getting one damn special Pad Thai.

Full disclaimer: I have eaten here in the past and the food was much better so maybe they simply had an off-night. Also, their sister restaurant Sukhothai is delicious.

I’m not hating on Khao San Road, But still, the evolution of a restaurant’s popularity is interesting to me. Why do people (ourselves included) choose to pay more and wait longer for a product that really isn’t much better than the cheaper and quicker alternatives? How much of all this is really about the food?

Obviously, a restaurant can’t survive without a quality product on their plates. But once a restaurant becomes trendy and hip, it takes on a strange momentum of its own. And it’s in this moment (what Malcolm Gladwell might call the tipping point) that the experience becomes less about the food and more about external factors. Once a restaurant becomes the “new place you just have to try,” people will pay whatever they have to pay and wait for ridiculous amounts of time just to get a table. They’ll pretty much do whatever it takes.

“I’ll sit in the corner table! I’ll sit at the bar! I’ll stand up and eat! I just really need to try your fish tacos!”

And yes, I acknowledge the irony that we chose Khao San Road on Saturday. I’m not denying that I’m part of the problem. But at least I’m aware that there is a problem. That is what I learned on Saturday.

So what are some of these external factors? First off, Torontonians love to discuss restaurants, as do most other inhabitants of large, urban areas. So nobody wants to be left out of the loop. Some people want to say that they’ve tried a certain restaurant because they think if they haven’t, it somehow hurts their credibility as a knowledgeable urbanite. Some people simply like to be seen in certain establishments. Or they like to be able to tell the story afterwards.

Notice that I didn’t use the word “food” once in the previous paragraph.

Look, I’m not against the idea of trendy, hip restaurants. It’s great for these establishments and to be fair, the food is usually pretty damn good. But what I am against is the idea of going to a restaurant for reasons other than the food, for something as abstract and hard-to-pin-down as hype.

On Saturday night, I didn’t give a hoot about being seen there. I just wanted some good food. And it was clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the price and the wait were not worth the food. And I don’t think we’ll be sucked in again. Where’s the nearest Thai Express, anyway?

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